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Las Vegas Revamped for Nationals Run

  • 13 May 2019

The DII Pacific South remained interesting this spring, as teams traded decisions to keep the standings tight. Midway through the season, however, Las Vegas rallied around a turning point that culminated in a convincing league title win and trip to DII nationals.

In reality, that turning point occurred two years ago, when a big shift in personnel changed the dynamic of the team. Bruce Tolley joined the staff as head coach, and he’s relied on veterans like Jeruscha Ako, Danielle Schumacher and Tyler Malcolm to bring continuity and leadership to the pitch and beyond.

“The squad had almost a 100% changeout in two years,” Tolley said of the turnover. “We started at ground zero and have been developing from there. We worked on the forwards last year and this year was a more well rounded attack.

“Just having more structure in practice has kept interest up,” the coach addressed player retention. “And I did some things they haven’t done before – like film night. We can watch and talk about rugby and see what’s happening on the pitch instead of trying to explain it on the training pitch, where you don’t have the best vantage point.”

That review process has been important this season. The team opened with an away loss to Old Pueblo and then later tied Pasadena on the road.

“Both games we should’ve won,” Tolley said. “Against O.P., we lost by 17 but we played most of the game in their half. It was the first game of the season against a team that won [the league] the year before and who killed us when we played them. So they were a little intimidated and not entirely sure about what we’re implementing yet.

“That tie was my biggest disappointment as far as coaching,” Tolley said of the 14-14 decision against Pasadena. “There was something I didn’t do because we had the ball the whole game except for their two tries. We’d be inside their 22, driving, and then we’d knock-on, drop the ball, get a penalty – over and over. I learned that it was a lack of discipline.”

The team took a hard look at itself and emerged from film night with some reinforced objectives.

“Everyone decided to have confidence in the pattern. Let it work and really start to implement it,” Tolley said. “After that, even in training, it was smooth and fast and timing was on.

“Discipline is what improved,” the coach asserted. “The team had a reputation, prior to me showing up, of being a bully team that gets scrappy. We made a huge effort to focus on the rugby and good sportsmanship. Have fun and support each other and don’t worry about the other team. Focus on ourselves.”

Pasadena beat Old Pueblo 17-14 during the championship play-in match, and then Las Vegas got the retribution it was looking for: a 50-5 title win over the Royals.

“In the beginning of the game, the phases of play looked beautiful. Anybody watching would have enjoyed it,” the coach said of the DII Pacific South championship game. “They recognized the improvement, that if they stay disciplined and focused on what they want to accomplish, they have the capabilities to get it done.”

Flyhalf Schumacher, again, was crucial in the turn-around and final victory. Tolley praises the halfback’s vision and versatility, but also the ability to integrate newcomers. Other consistent standouts include hooker Liz Caperell, aka “Mighty Mouse,” who is the work horse around the pitch; basketball convert Lily Tapusoa, who was strong in the lineout and carried well; and captain and flanker Kate Capistrano, whom the team leans on and looks toward in terms of defensive standards.

Tolley also highlighted the center pairing of Vaimalo Manuo, the former Utah Vipers No. 8, and Haylee Holsclaw, a former forward who really fought the move to the backline and then became one of the toughest centers in the division.

“When I first joined, I had a five-year plan that ended with us consistently going to nationals. Next year was supposed to be the one where we got there,” Tolley said of goals. “But because we got to the SoCal final last year, our goal this year was to win it.”

Las Vegas will now head to Austin, Texas, this weekend for the DII Club Western Regional Championship and will face the Sacramento Amazons in the first round. The winner will then play the winner of St. Louis vs. Austin for the berth to the national final.

“Everyone is excited because for all but one player, this is new,” Tolley said. “They’re feeding off each other’s energy right now and we’re hoping to keep that same high level going. I don’t think they’ve peaked yet. I think they have better games ahead as a team.”

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