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First-Yr Quins Win NorCal Plate

  • 20 Apr 2016

Land Park during its NorCal semifinal win over Motherlode. /// Photo: Bill Reid Photography 


Olivia Popp discovered rugby when her brother started playing for Land Park Motley, a youth rugby organization based in the Sacramento area. After two years on the co-ed team, she turned attention to her high school options. With no convenient team for which to play, she pitched the addition of an U18 girls’ team to the Land Park Harlequins. With the help of her dad, Curtis, on the managerial side, and the coaching expertise of Naki Hopoi and Jason Gaskins, the Harlequins’ middle school and high school programs were born in fall 2015.


The interest was there, as 40 players registered between the two teams. Practices got moving in October 2015, and the staff looked to keep that momentum in motion.


“We set high goals from the beginning, talking about nationals from very early on – not necessarily winning nationals but experiencing it,” said Harlequins manager Curtis Popp. “We looked at the teams around us – Danville, Amazons, Pleasanton – and wanted to be one of those teams.”


So the Harlequins lined up a pair of scrimmages against Danville right away. Popp was concerned that a walloping – which Danville is capable of delivering – might deter the new team, but playing one of the best teams in the country helped the team visualize where it needed to grow.


“The experience gave the girls some confidence,” Popp reflected. “At the girls’ Kickoff Tournament, we beat Pleasanton and that was a huge confidence-builder. We had a big jump on conditioning and training, and Pleasanton was missing some players, but it was a huge accomplishment for us. We can hang with them and at some point we’ll be playing with them.”


Come regular season, Pleasanton and Sacramento posted convincing wins over Land Park, but the Harlequins defeated all of its second-tier opponents: Renegades 36-22, Chico 22-0, Sierra Foothills 63-12, Crusaders 26-12 and Mother Lode 38-7. Land Park won its NorCal semifinal over the Crusaders and advanced to the DI Plate championship against Bay Area champion Bishop O’Dowd (the DI Cup was contested between Sacramento, Pleasanton and Danville).


Land Park enjoyed this level of success on the backs of some experienced players, but the final saw four important starters missing. Chief among them was Izzy Roberson, the flyhalf, kicker and anchor in the back line; and Jackie Miller, an aggressive, hard-charging flanker. Eleven of 15 starters were first-year rugby players, and three junior high schoolers started or subbed in.

Bishop O’Dowd scored first, Land Park responded, and then it was a slug fest from there on out.


“They’re a more forwards-oriented team, and we lean on our backs,” Popp explained. “To win, our smaller forwards had to get the ball away from the breakdown. Our tries came from big runs after getting the ball out wide, while theirs were grind-it-out, power rugby. They were different philosophies, but we were equally matched.”


Land Park got leading performances out of No. 8 Destiny Nash and flyhalf Leireena Anjoklok.


“She runs like a deer,” Popp said of Nash. “She’s built like a forward but plays like a back. She’s a big girl but not super physical and violent when she runs. She’s more graceful and light on her feet.


“Leireena is one of the best young rugby players I’ve ever seen,” Popp continued. “She’s as strong as an ox and a violent runner – meaning when she gets the ball, she’s not going down easy. But she also knows when to offload. She has 6-7 years of experience and is one of the players setting the standard for the rest of the team.”


Lily Milholm had a good day at outside center, and the championship MVP scored a hat trick on the day. Fullback Qiera Nixon and wing Olivia Popp also scored tries, while Nixon and scrumhalf Lilly Farias added conversions in the 31-22 win.


“It galvanized them,” Popp said of the Plate championship. “Saturday was validation that we’re actually pretty good. That we should go to the national championship especially since it’s a two-tier tournament. We’re going to go after that title, and it doesn’t seem like an unrealistic goal. We’ll know when we get there, but we’re going more for the experience and to get them ready for years to come.”


As far as the future’s concerned, near-term goals include building the forward base and getting more players to use their size effectively. In the longer term, Land Park wants to develop its middle school feeder (which played a halftime exhibition game against Motherlode during the San Francisco vs. Sacramento PRO league opener at Bonney Field Sunday). But management also hopes that the successes of Land Park encourage the creation of girls’ programs at the five different high schools from which the Harlequins draw players.


“There’s a big buzz right now with rugby in Sacramento and girls’ rugby in general,” Popp said. “We’re hitting it at the right time.”


Land Park is playing in a friendly tournament this weekend and then will travel to the club high school championship as the NorCal DI Plate champion, May 21-22 at Central Washington University.


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