Carmel Rugby Club has retained the Indiana Girls’ High School 15s Championship title, and faced a new opponent in Warsaw in the state final. The win capped an undefeated 15s season, one that championship MVP Chloe de Leon credited to an internally driven, fit and connected team.
A rising senior at Carmel High School, de Leon has always been drawn to contact sports. At an early age, she became a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and yellow belt in jiu-jitsu, and has been wrestling for two years (she’s also ran track and cross country). But when she and her dad saw a Try Rugby advertisement on the side of the road, she needed a little parental encouragement to try a new sport.
“I was a little hesitant,” de Leon reflected on her middle school self. “I knew it was male dominated so I wasn’t too interested.”
The Try Rugby attendees played touch, “but then the coaches explained that you tackle at the middle school level,” de Leon said of the pivotal moment. “And that was it.”
De Leon started playing 7s in 7th grade, and due to her smaller stature, speed and nose for the ball, scrumhalf became the right fit positionally. Her halfback game really developed in high school, where Rugby Indiana teams also play 15s, and she found more and layered means to control the game.
She also got curious about the rugby opportunities around her, and that’s where Maria Bashmakov entered her sphere.
“I had a mentor,” de Leon said. “She was talking to my dad about some opportunities she had … and we were all kind of interested. What’s the next level? She was very helpful and the reason why I found myself playing for all these teams, and why I got scouted by USA Rugby. She was the beginning of that for me. … Without that [help], I would not be here right now. I owe a lot to her.”
Bashmakov currently plays with the WPL’s Chicago North Shore, and has played a lot of representative ball, including last year’s first-ever Maccabi USA women’s rugby team that won Silver at the first Maccabiah Games women’s rugby event. She helped the de Leons understand and navigate the sometimes nebulous network of select side opportunities.
De Leon started with EIRA camps and then featured at her first national tournament, NAI 7s, in 2019. She kept reaching out to other teams and featured on more tours, and built the notoriety for selection to teams like the Midwest Thunderbirds. Today – literally – she’s heading to Europe with the North American Lions, which will compete in the Heidelberg 7s in Germany then United World Games in Austria.
“If you seek out those opportunities, they are there,” de Leon said. “And when I say I got recruited, I went out to a national tournament – Tropical 7s – and that’s how I got coaches talking to me. There are coaches all over, more than athletes think there are.”
De Leon does want to represent the USA one day, but those dreams don’t distract her from daily goals and her hometown Carmel team. Coming off its spring 2022 15s championship, Carmel channeled that energy into the fall 2022 7s season. The team advanced to the final, but the Chargers took the title with a 22-7 victory. [Of note, Chargers head coach Kris Carroll said, “[O]ur whole strategy heading into the championship was: We have to stop Chloe. She’s that good that it drove our entire strategy.”]
As the team readied for the 2023 spring 15s season, de Leon confessed that there were some nerves early on. It was expecting the competition to be as strong if not stronger than the fall, and that the field would be targeting Carmel as the reigning 15s champion.
“We also had to play without one of our star players, Celia Watson,” de Leon said of the long-time friend and incoming Princeton University freshman. “Without her, that was a bit scary for us.”
Fortunately, de Leon was surrounded by internally driven teammates. Senior captains Carmela Campbell and Lissa Salisbury, who do work from hooker and No. 8, respectively, set the tone. They’ve both been around the sport for years, have high rugby IQ and distill concepts into consumable bites for younger and newer teammates.
“It was more than just the captains that made our team,” de Leon said. “This helped to our success this season, just how self-motivated and self-driven individuals were.”
The scrumhalf called out prop Sydney Molaski, whose playing career started in middle school alongside de Leon and who brings all that rich rugby knowledge to the front row. She was an important influence on new player, Molly Chisholm, who was dynamite at hooker this season. In the backs, Arielle Sorelle Noussa Fotso funneled her talent into flyhalf, and demanded a high standard from herself and teammates, per de Leon. Fullback Tessa Weisgerber injected into the line with hard-crashing lines, and inside center Sophie Bonnici – with her crisp, accurate passing skills – was also crucial to that back line attack. Bonnici was also the placekicker and put important points on the board under pressure.
“I have so much pride and respect for them. I’m lucky to have them,” de Leon said. “This year, I was definitely not the only one who felt that way. They love the sport and train for it outside of practice, and that contributed to our success this season.”
The Rugby Indiana 15s season got underway in April. Carmel was joined in Division I by Warsaw, Chargers and North Central. Division II included six teams. In Carmel’s first league game, it played Warsaw to a 24-24 tie. Both teams went undefeated for the rest of the spring before meeting in the state championship. Along the way, Carmel defeated the Chargers 41-10, and by the time the rivals met in the state semifinal, the Greyhounds were playing that synced, super-connected game that evolves from like-minded teammates. On May 29, Carmel won 60-7 to advance to the final.
The state championship occurred on the Monday of Memorial Day Weekend at Cynthenne Park outside of Indianapolis. De Leon was named captain for the championship, but had missed the season-opener against Warsaw and thus had no knowledge of the opponent she was facing.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” de Leon said. “They were the first team – other than Carmel – to punch back at us, and that threw me off a bit. When we realized that we just have to persevere, [that] this won’t to be an easy team to beat, then we scored a bit and our confidence went up.”
Warsaw put up a solid fight, but Carmel had invested in its game-day fitness – courtesy of new head coach Shayla Meinders – and was confident in its ability to close out a game.
“In the second half, we were fit and ready,” de Leon said. “The key with conditioning is forcing your body to learn how to play athletically and continuing to play at that level, where you still have good passes, still have good contact, still have good reactions … and working as a team even when you’re fatigued. … When you can do that, it makes games feel like practices.”
When the final whistle sounded, Carmel had defeated Warsaw 38-8 for a repeat Indiana Girls’ High School 15s Championship. It was a special title run for de Leon.
“We have such a good senior class,” she said of the five players leaving Carmel. “The two captains, and Celia Watson especially. She was one of the first key rugby friends that made me fall in love with the sport. I’m going to miss her so much. … I’ve already digested the fact that they’re leaving but it’s kind of sad to think about again. … I wanted to win this year especially for them and end their high school careers on a high note.”
Now that summer is here, de Leon can turn attention to the rugby that is taking her to other parts of the country and overseas. At the time of print, de Leon was in the air heading for Europe and a two-stop tour with the North American Lions. In July, she’ll report to Mount St. Mary’s Univ. in Maryland, site of the USA U18 15s East Camp, and then in August, it’s back to Chula Vista for the USA 7s High Performance Academy. All of these assemblies aid de Leon’s growth and insight into the next stages of her career.
“That was a shock when I first went out there, because I was under the impression it was a U18 kind of thing, but it was U20s and U23s,” de Leon said of her first HP 7s Academy camp in April. “We were doing 1-v-1s, and I was, ‘O.K., I’m going against this U23 girl,’ who happened to be 23.
“The experience is something that is very valuable as a young athlete, because I’m 16 and still have a long ways to go,” she said of lessons gleaned from older campers. “It’s refreshing to go out and be challenged like that, see what I need to improve. I can’t just pick-and-go every time, because the defense, I can’t easily manipulate it. And I can’t easily step them. I’m going against girls who have the same motivation and talent as me. It’s valuable for my growth.”
De Leon was the youngest camper at the April camp, though other high schoolers like Orchard Park’s Annie Henrich is also in the HP 7s system and attended last week’s camp. After the summer, it’s onto senior year, and de Leon will no doubt fill a leadership role. While Carmel is working toward 7s and 15s titles, de Leon will also be narrowing down college options.
“Any of the DI NIRA programs,” de Leon said of top prospects. “I would love to play [NCAA] DI rugby. I feel like that’s the next step for me. I’m looking at Army West Point right now, but I’m going to keep it open, because I feel like DI is the dream.”