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Highlanders Rebound for Oregon 15s Championship

  • 30 May 2019

Rugby Oregon continually adjusts its competitions so that teams don’t fold and players remain engaged. That ideology is replicated at the grassroots level, as numbers concerns and/or leadership changeover see teams combine resources to form a new club. The Vancouver Highlanders know these necessities and are hoping that the recently claimed 15s state championship will stoke more interest and stability.

A few years ago, Rugby Oregon was able to field separate 15s divisions for its single-school programs (“varsity”) and high school club teams. That’s the ideal for many State Rugby Organizations and mirrors the set-up of the girls’ and boys’ National Invitational Tournaments. But the girls’ high schools couldn’t sustain the separation, and saw the competition re-merge for the regular season while still maintaining separate playoffs. Last year, the Clark County Cyclones, a new team that resulted from two clubs combining, won the club 15s title, while the Valley Panthers reigned as the varsity 15s champs.

Viti Atuaia was on the ground floor of the Cyclones’ creation and was promoted into the sole head coaching position for 2018-19. He rebranded the team, now the Vancouver Highlanders, and readied for another challenging year. Even though the Highlanders draw from six high schools, but numbers were low, and the year ended with 17 players. Still, its CIPP roster qualified the Highlanders for the 15s competition.

Fortunately Atuaia had four senior returners to anchor the team, in particular captains Jasmine Chaiyasith and Jessica Wu, who were instrumental in coalescing a mostly freshmen (6) and sophomore (7) squad.

“It took a long time to get it all together,” Atuaia said. “We started practicing the second week of November because I knew we had a lot of new players. Seventy-five percent of the team has never played before or only played fall 7s.”

To boot, Atuaia began introducing an All Blacks-inspired system of play and looked to the seniors to drive that education.

“It’s complicated and we haven’t fully grasped the system yet. We’re maybe at 40% understanding right now,” Atuaia said. “The positioning is still confusing for them, but once they understand how to play, I can start making adjustments.”

The senior forwards, as well as notables like No. 8 AnitaLose’ Tamoua and sophomore lock Amelia Brabec, drove the new style of play, while also mitigating the stress of low numbers. On only two occasions did the Highlanders field a full 15s squad.

“It was a challenge and you end up using players that other teams wouldn’t start, but you don’t have a choice,” Atuaia said. “You move players around different positions just to make it work.”

A couple of players became really comfortable playing every position. One new player learned hooker, prop and flanker, and another one moved from the forwards to inside center.

“You try to look at how other teams play – where they attack the most – and fill those gaps with experienced players. You put the less experienced players where they don’t attack,” the coach spoke to strategy.

The team gutted it out for six-straight wins, and then the final week of league pit the Highlanders against also-undefeated Valley Panthers.

“They always have a good team and beat us by a lot,” Atuaia said of the 50-15 loss.

“There are a couple of players who are very experienced and smart, and their understanding of the game and their leadership skills show a lot,” the coach continued. “One is so fast and was just killing us – came quickly in the middle and then boom she was gone. We didn’t have anyone to match her speed until the final.”

The Highlanders finished the regular season 6-1 behind Valley and advanced to the playoffs. Vancouver focused on its defense and individual tackling during the run-up to the semifinals against David Douglas, and was rewarded with a 63-5 victory. Valley beat Reynolds 63-12 in the semifinals to set up a rematch for the 15s title.

There was some drama in the lead-up to the final, as players were being cleared for play until the Thursday before the title match. But the players were ready to showcase their improvement and scored two tries in the opening 10 minutes.

“Valley answered back, and it was back and forth from there,” Atuaia said. “It was good that we started early with the lead, because it meant Valley had to play catch-up the entire game.”

Valley’s danger players were still in the mix and they were still effective.

“Key player for that game was our 15, Kylie Garcia,” Atuaia said. “She saved a lot of tries and was great on defense. She must be the MVP”

The coach also highlighted rookie lock Autumn Ekeberg, who had her best game of the season, pushing that tackle rate and taking many opportunities to run the ball. Freshman Faaiuga Toese also shined in a new position. She moved from wing to flanker to account for an injury and scored two tries.

Vancouver held a two-try lead with two minutes to go, and then Valley added a final score for the 37-32 final.

“Everyone was happy and for me something was taken off my shoulders,” Atuaia was particularly happy that he didn’t have to play any rehabbing players. “The girls knew they worked for it, so they were excited. There were some tears on Valley’s side – it’s a hard thing, to try and go win a championship. To do it once, it hardly happens, and this was one of the golden ones. It’s a really good feeling.”

Atuaia acknowledged that the season wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the parents, fans, assistant coach Aja Turner, and also sponsor Silicon Forest Electronics, which covered 80% of the new kit. All of that time, commitment and investment produced another state trophy, and the hope is that visibility will garner more interest.

In the meantime, players will play summer 7s and/or join the Red Hawks squads heading to the Regional Cup Tournament, the Great Northwest Challenge, in Boise, Idaho, this June. There, players and staff will experience another level of competition and exposure.

In other state championship results, David Douglas defeated Reynolds 34-22 for the 3rd place in the 15s competition. Linn Benton defeated Canby 43-0 for the 10s title.

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