Photo: Bobby Gable
The Single-School National Invitational Tournament (NIT) is a Division I bracket, and teams like Broken Arrow (read more) and Grandville High School are thus promoted into a new level of play. The competition won’t be foreign to the Bulldogs, which finished third at the Midwest Championship, but the outing will still mark a new stage in the program’s history.
“Our 2018/2019 team started much like new roommates: They were unsure of each other and had to lay down some housekeeping rules, but eventually learned to live together and became a family,” explained Kelli Straub, who coaches alongside Magdalene Law. “They have finally started to show their style of play this spring, which is really bringing our newer players to a whole new level.”
Leading the way are Addy Ochoa and Gina Pollice, both backs.
“They are both natural athletes,” Coach Law praised. “They play together beautifully and they keep the game moving.”
Photo: Bobby Gable
They deploy an attack that features true speed in players like Sofia Vazquez, Bella Vanderwal and Carson Sanderson, and is bolstered by Hanna Sarber, Hannah Koorndyk and Rachel Millet. The forwards are diverse, with two of three kicking options (Grace Dykla and Cici Loew; Ochoa is the third) residing in the pack, and line-breakers in flanker MacKenzie Graham, Autumn Dunavan, and a special front row duo.
“Cierra Roberts and Mya Bowman show us solid prop breakaways, which everyone loves to see,” Coach Law continued. “There is nothing like a prop not only making one good run in a game but several!”
Gabriella Quinones, Katie Simons, Alivia Walker, Olivia Bowen and Alaysia Beard are also players to watch in the forwards. To boot, many players are diversifying their elite experience, and nine have either represented the Midwest Thunderbirds or accepted recent invitations to tryouts: Ochoa, Pollice, Sarber, Koorndyk, Loew, Dykla, Olivia Bowen, Vanderwal and Sanderson.
“Many of our players can play both forward and back positions, that is how we teach them,” Coach Law noted. “So at any time in the game you may see them switch to prepare for the best lineup at that moment.”
The Midwest Championship is the perfect barometer for teams readying to NITs. The late April tournament not only gauges a team’s readiness for elite competition but also familiarizes newcomers with the demands of a multi-game weekend. Grandville started with a 22-17 win over Indiana’s Penn before dropping its semifinal to eventual champion Divine Savior Holy Angles (read more). The Michigan team rallied on day two to beat Ohio’s Saint Joseph Academy 38-25 for third.
“Midwest was a great example of this team playing together as one,” Staub reflected. “They had to get the nerves out in game one so by the time we played game three, they were building off each other and really jiving. We love seeing our young athletes stay positive and pick each other up because that fight will carry with them well beyond high school rugby and influence how they handle tough times in life as well.
“As far as game play, we realized how versatile our forwards are, inserting into the back line and getting the ball out when the [scrumhalf] is detained,” Staub noted takeaways. “Additionally, moving one of our centers and captains to [scrumhalf] opened us up for more dynamic play and a controlled game format.”
The pressure ramps up at NITs, but Grandville will begin with a relatively familiar opponent: Broken Arrow. The teams contested the DII final last year with the Oklahoma side triumphing.
“We tell the players that nerves are normal,” Law addressed mentality issues. “If you weren’t nervous about the games at hand then we would be concerned. Then we tell them, now that nerves are out of the way and we have acknowledged them, what cool things are we going to do out on the field?”
“Second place in Division II last year was a huge accomplishment for them and playing at a higher caliber will definitely help our program continue to grow,” coach Staub looked ahead. “Division I, of course, is a whole new frontier for us. I hope the athletes realize how big that is and they should be extremely proud. I know Coach [Law] and I are very proud of how this team has developed over the years and even from fall season to now.”