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Fort Miami Rises as Florida Champ

  • 23 Apr 2019

Fort Miami has been Florida’s DII club state champion and representative to the South championship for the last few years, but that doesn’t mean the team goes through the season untested. This year, Tampa Bay provided the resistance needed when building toward peaking performances, and that process will now extend to the South final four on May 4-5 in Savannah, Ga.

Fort Miami lost nine players from last year’s team, which finished seven points short of Charlotte in the South final. Charlotte went on to win the DII national championship. But a nice influx of new players has mitigated the personnel changeover and introduced some opportunity.

Lindsey Koren, a University of Florida graduate and former Jacksonville player; Kim Semiglia of Life University and Florida International University; and Trisha Suriano from Indian River have been valuable additions. Rugby newcomers Morgan Brown, a student at Florida Atlantic University, which is inactive; and Sydnee Meriwether, who relocated from Pennsylvania have been impactful additions as well. The shifting roster has changed the team’s on-field look, but head coach Eyal Hakim saw the good timing of it all.

“We have a different style of play this year, because we’re moving toward the modern style of the game,” the coach said. “Breaking older players of bad habits is hard to do, but when you have new players, it makes the transition easier.”

There was a learning curve, but the team is fortunate to have the game smarts of players like flyhalf Marie Zeoli, the captain.

“She’s a huge impact player for us and makes 60% of the decisions on the field,” Hakim said. “Kimberly [Semiglia] is also a decision-maker so they share that role.”

In the forwards, Hakim looks to Brie Cokos, who has been with the team since its inception. She has a ton of experience and sets the example up front. Her leadership has seen breakout performances from younger athletes like Meriwether, who quickly developed into an important impact player.

The DII Florida league includes five teams, which play each other home and away for an eight-game season.

“The level of competition was much lower this year but a lot of that had to do with the schedule,” Hakim explained. “We played almost every team back to back, so we just got bored by the time we got to the end of the season. That was a big hit with the girls mentally.”

In weeks one and two, Fort Miami beat Indian River by a combined 180-0. In weeks four and five, Jacksonville lost both games by a combined 134-0. The game in Orlando was a good one – 22-12 – and the rematch was less so – 46-15. By mid-March it was time for Tampa Bay.

The loss to Tampa came at the best time. It switched them on mentally. Had been complacement because of schedule.

“We didn’t know what they had. I don’t scout other teams,” Hakim said. “I’d seen some scorelines in the beginning of the season and wasn’t sure if it was them beating teams with injuries or low numbers, or them beating teams because they had improved so much in one season. We soon found out that they had gotten that much better.”

Hakim was thoroughly impressed with Tampa Bay and the improvements made since last year’s 1-7 season. The Krewe took that first game 19-14.

“The girls really internalized that loss and came back with a positive attitude about their approach and how they wanted to better themselves,” Hakim said. “That loss came at the perfect moment. It drew them all together and they were more switched on mentally.”

Now that Fort Miami had a frame of reference, they knew what was expected of them in order to win and amped themselves up for the rematch. The team also identified some areas of vulnerability in Tampa Bay and prepared to exert some pressure in different areas of the game.

Both teams were ready for the rematch, but Fort Miami came out on top 17-5.

“It was a close match and I think we probably left a couple of tries on the field,” Hakim recalled a knock-on in the try zone and a finishing pass that was forward. “Defensively we played them very well.”

That match was the final one of the season. Fort Miami finished 7-1 and both Tampa Bay and Orlando went 5-3. The Krewe banked an important bonus point in one of its losses and thus finished one point ahead of Orlando in the standings. That meant a third Fort Miami vs. Tampa Bay in approximately a month, but this one afforded a trip to the South championship.

A truly back-and-forth match evolved in the Florida final. Zeoli kicked two penalties and Tampa Bay scored two tries – one from flanker Lis Gallant and lock Amy Rogan. Robyn Oliveri kicked the conversion for a 12-6 halftime lead.

Krewe’s second yellow card sparked opened up some opportunity and wing Adina Minott and Cokos scored tries within five minutes of each other, 16-12. But Tampa Bay came firing back and No. 8 Ruth Black away for a lead-changing try, 17-16 to the Krewe.

“We had a couple of really good impact players who added some fire to the girls and kept them fighting,” Hakim pointed to Morgan Brown, who came on and finished off a nice offloading series for a try.

Minutes later, No. 8 Kristi Schnepp scored and wing Karla Cote Torres kicked the extras for the 28-17 lead. Fort Miami continued to roll on fresh legs and held on for the win.

“Tampa came for us and played to the level that was needed to beat us. To make those improvements in a year is incredible,” Hakim said.

“They were ultra excited to have a game that went back and forth for 75% of the time. They saw that they could have lost it as well,” the coach insinuated that there’s no sense of complacency setting in.

In two Saturdays, Fort Miami and True South champion Knoxville will face two teams from Carolinas/Georgia runner-up in the CR semifinals.

“The big thing for us is maintaining our heads,” Hakim talked upcoming goals. “And I’m big on them playing hard-nose defense. They haven’t been fully tested but Tampa was the closest. Openside flanker Stephanie Nevadunsky, she goes all the time; just have to get the rest of the team to her level.”

But Hakim is confident in his squad and looks forward to future tests.

“If we play like we can, we can dominate any team we face. I have that much faith in my girls. They bring a lot to the table and can push on with any team – if they come with their A-game.”

Looking to support Fort Miami en route to the South championship? Check out the team’s GoFundMe fundraiser and its EGGSMASH campaign.

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