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Freedom Prep Wins Tennessee 15s Title

  • 10 Jun 2019

Freedom Prep Academy has experienced success at the state level, claiming two fall 7s titles, but last month’s championship win over Columbia Central marked the Memphis program’s first Tennessee State 15s title. Eighteen-year-old Faith Walker (’18) led Freedom Prep in her first year as head coach.

RELATED: 2019 Women’s Rugby Calendar

Walker started playing rugby sophomore year of high school and served as captain her junior and senior years. The former head coach knew she was moving on and approached Walker about potentially filling the position after graduation. Walker accepted and started taking additional responsibilities last season, before taking over the program in fall 2018.

“It was kind of hard,” Walker said of balancing new roles as head coach and collegiate freshman at the University of Memphis. “And I had another job on top of that.”

Fortunately, Walker wasn’t alone. The Memphis Inner-City Rugby (MICR) provided lots of support and coach development workshops throughout the year, and co-founder and executive director Shane Young served as a constant resource.

Photo: Buffy Holt Venable

Approximately 15 players committed to the fall, and the team focused on fitness and conditioning. Freedom Prep then won the Tennessee state 7s championship convincingly: 41-0 over Columbia Central in the final. Carlicia Beam, who, “is a forward but runs like a back,” according to Walker, was named MVP and is heading to Dartmouth College this fall.

That success injected some confidence into the squad, but Walker explained that the fall title was no guarantee of continued success.

“I didn’t really know what we’d look like,” Walker said the 15s team. “People leave, take jobs, things come up. You never know, but you hope for a solid group to come out.”

The roster started sorting out in January when 15s practices kicked off and the roster filled out nicely in time for February games.

Photo: Buffy Holt Venable

“There was a lot of experience in the class after me,” the coach said of her former teammates and core of the team. “But I had to make sure those experienced players were still learning at practice. A lot of them did more traveling [with MICR and USA South all-stars] than I did, and I had to keep practices fun and new for everyone.

“They helped set the tone,” the coach added. “I had told the players: I don’t want any temporary players. We set the tone; already told them: I don’t want any temporary players. I need all my girls to be on the same page. No missing practices; be dedicated.

Walker was grateful to twin sisters Selena and Serena Jones and Niya Bailey, who stepped up in a big way. They communicated concerns, feedback on drills, and goals in a positive way, and then led by example.

Photo: Buffy Holt Venable

“It was easier because my old girls also helped with that process,” Walker said. “It was a great transition with everyone helping and everyone blending.”

The Western Tennessee conference includes two other teams – Soulsville and Germantown – and the league plays a home-and-away schedule. The first round of matches were competitive and then Freedom Prep really started to build momentum in advance of the conference championship (April 27).

“Teyonce Harris just started playing rugby this year,” Walker said of breakout performances. “When she first started she was very quiet and didn’t say anything, but she listened and got everything done. I told her, ‘You’ve got to speak up and get involved; no one hears you.’ Over time she progressed, communicated more, tackled more, and did really well.”

Photo: Buffy Holt Venable

Freedom Prep went undefeated through the Western Conference championship and advanced to the state semifinals against McMinn Tribe for another post-season win. That set up a rematch of the 2018 state 15s final with Columbia Central.

“They have to be able to take contact because Columbia Central is very tough. They hit hard and tackle well,” Walker said in preparation of the final. “We had to be dedicated to the tackle and the technique. In general, everything had to be precise.”

Despite the stakes – and the fact that the final was the day after prom – there were no nerves on game day, according to Walker, and the team was just ready to go.

Photo: Buffy Holt Venable

“The beginning of the game, they came out hard – they always come out hard,” Walker said of Columbia Central. “But we came out harder. Throughout the game everyone worked together to fix errors on the field, and everyone just talked to each other.”

Jamie Logan put in a memorable performance and earned big praise from coach.

“Jamie worked really hard, even though she had an injury during the game,” Walker said of the rising senior and loose forward. “She did everything right, and did everything she could to make the tackle if someone wasn’t there. She did everything she could to save tries.”

Photo: Buffy Holt Venable

Freedom Prep put in a 27-7 performance to earn its first-ever Tennessee State 15s Championship, and Nadia Burton earned championship MVP honors.

“I was shocked and overwhelmed,” Walker recalled final-whistle reactions. “They were crying a lot because they didn’t think they’d get through it,” Walker said of final whistle reactions. “They didn’t give up at all. They were so happy, it being their last game and all.”

Among the graduating seniors, Shaniah Jones extended a year of incredible achievements with a selection to the USA Rugby Girls’ High School All-American (GHSAA) team that competed in NextGen 7s tournament in Canada.

Two state titles in the same season and with a first-year head coach, players heading off to college and NCAA varsity rugby programs, more still heading into the national and all-star ranks with summer – things are looking good for Freedom Prep Academy.

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