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MIAA Championship: A Game Worth Winning

  • 26 Jun 2019

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletics Association (MIAA) added rugby as an official varsity sport in 2017 and last weekend saw the third state championship take place. Belmont High School and Lincoln-Sudbury entered the final with 6-1 records, having split their regular-season games, and played to a thrilling one-point decision in the June 22 title bout. The Marauders celebrated their third-straight state 15s championship.

RELATED: More MIAA background / 2018 final

Belmont enjoyed healthy numbers this year and fielded robust JV and varsity squads. A strong class of 11 seniors – seven of which, by season’s end, won three state championships – directed a group that included 21 new freshmen. Belmont faced Algonquin and Lincoln-Sudbury in home-and-away series, and got a big confidence boost when it beat the latter by 30-plus points at home. A month later, however, Lincoln-Sudbury deployed an oppressive defense for the rematch and shut out Belmont 24-0.

“All credit to Lincoln-Sudbury. They’re a phenomenal team with incredible athletes and a wonderful coaching staff led by Sarah Greeley – and we knew that,” Belmont head coach Kate McCabe recalled the regular-season loss. “They played a much more physical game the second time around and I don’t think my players were necessarily prepared to compete with that. They challenged at the ruck, counter-rucked, and their launch was phenomenal. They really challenged our scrumhalf and flyhalf, which impacts the whole attacking flow. They did a great job shutting down our options.”

McCabe indicated that the players walked away from that game frustrated with themselves but motivated to set new targets at practice. Physicality became the new focus during training, and even though heavy contact against one’s own teammates is undesirable, the players understood and embraced the necessity of it all. They sorted out the defense they needed to run in order to play the attack that best suited their talents.

More than a month later, Belmont and Lincoln-Sudbury played their third and final match of the season for the Massachusetts state title. Belmont’s time on the practice pitch allowed the team to start the game with confidence, and the players unleashed its own pressure defense that helped open up the attack.

Sophomore Natalie Hill and senior Amanda Hanley set the tone. The former is a first-year player and already a varsity flanker. She was all over the pitch and shut down Lincoln-Sudbury’s weakside options off the ruck. Hanley’s tackle rate was impressive, and that aggression energized the squad.

A line-break evolved into a pick-and-go campaign to the try line, and then wing Eliza Campbell took the final drive over the line. Flyhalf Gabby Viale, who played a vital role relieving pressure with her boot, then grubbered through the back line. Campbell was fast on the chase, gathered the ball and dotted down in the corner, 10-0. The super fast wing is a first-year player and The Boston Globe named her an all-scholastic player.

As expected, Lincoln-Sudbury answered back with a centered try, but Belmont closed out the half with a third try, using a back line move to put wing Ana Oteri away, 15-7 at the break. Oteri, who has played multiple positions, flourished at wing and did a knockout job tracking Lincoln-Sudbury’s outside speed.

“We really talked about pressure,” McCabe recapped the halftime talk. “We had lots of success by really coming up and putting pressure on their 10, and we wanted to maintain that launch. Then, when we got that turnover or forced an error, we really wanted to use the space out wide. That was the feedback, but we also knew to never count Lincoln-Sudbury out.”

The half opened with a series just outside Lincoln-Sudbury’s 22, and then a penalty allowed captain Viale to take advantage of a slowly resetting defense, tapping through the mark and darting across the try line: 20-7. Approximately 10 minutes later, a penalty kick to touch set up a lineout and driving maul to the try line. Hill was at the back and dotted down the fifth try, 27-7.

The sophomore class distinguished itself, with players like hooker Rebecca Anderson and scrumhalf Sadie Kabhrel putting in memorable performances. Anderson is heading to ARPTC for a summer residency, and Kabhrel stepped into a big role left vacant by four-year scrumhalf Jess Rosenstein, now at Lindenwood University. They’re among the players who will define the team after the big senior class graduates.

“Lincoln-Sudbury came back really rapidly and just started driving through. You could tell there was a shift in their mentality and they got more aggressive as the game went on,” McCabe said with 15 minutes to go in the match. “Their forwards did a great job of driving through and offloading in contact and really sucked in our forwards, which made our defensive wall more narrow.”

An impressive 30-meter maul set up Lincoln-Sudbury’s first try of the second half. That forward attack, led by powerhouses like No. 8 Karee Horton and flanker co-captain Kate Molloy (Brown University commit), created overloads out wide for dangerous finishers like Christelle Saint-Louis and Suley Oller-Guerrero. The team’s third try came from an overlap, and with five minutes to go, Lincoln-Sudbury trailed 27-19.

“Every time we play Lincoln-Sudbury – whether regular season or in a championship – we know it’s going to be a really hard match,” McCabe said. “[With five minutes to go,] the message was: Slow down the game and keep possession. We nearly succeeded, but on the last play of the game, Lincoln-Sudbury scored.”

Lincoln-Sudbury had the final word, but Belmont took the title, 27-26.

“They were so elated. They had put in the work and put themselves in that place and they deserved it,” McCabe said of the players’ reaction. “For me, [the close finish] makes it a game worth winning. It wasn’t a game where the other side just gave up but where every single person was fighting it out until the last minute.

“These teams know each other so well so there’s a tremendous amount of respect there,” McCabe added. “I’m really glad we came out on top but also I’m so impressed with Lincoln-Sudbury’s work. It takes a lot of mental fortitude to fight until the end like that.”

McCabe highlighted the strong group of seniors and its experience, which went beyond state championships.

“They really love rugby but more importantly they built a pretty good family out of this team, which makes it fun,” McCabe said. “We will miss them but they leave the team in a great position to grow.”

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