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Midwest U18s Energized for More International Travel

  • 04 Sep 2019
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Photos: John English

It was a hallmark year for the Midwest High School Thunderbirds, the regional 15s all-star program for U18 athletes. The “Baby Birds” took 63 players, parents and staff to Ireland for three games and an Irish Rugby Tour-organized trip, an experience that has sparked even more enthusiasm for the most active all-star organization in the states.

“We didn’t know what to expect in our first international tour,” Midwest HS Thunderbird coach Garrett Fisher said. “We didn’t know how we’d do competitively, how well the parents would be on board, but from top to bottom it went fantastically.”

There was some anxiety taking the pitch against unknown entities, and the staff had few points of comparison to do any kind of scouting. So the staff worked on the team’s mentality, reassuring the players that they’d find familiarity at the U18 level.

“They thought they’d be behind in level or style of play or higher-level concepts, but I wanted them to realize that even though rugby is a growing sport in the states, these historic rugby countries are working on the same things as us,” Fisher said. “These players are the same age as you and working on the same skills and development and concepts. So when you step on the field against them you have to feel you belong with these provincial sides. Play smart, hard and fast. If we play our game then we’ll hopefully get a win. It was good to see the players realize that and not play on their heels.”

The Baby Birds lost their first two games to Munster and Connacht by single digits, and the latter match was decided in injury time.

“We were in the two games we lost to Munster and Connacht, until the end of the game. We even led parts of both games so that was really great to see,” Fisher said. “The Munster and Connacht coaches were both – not surprised, but pleased at the level of play. They spoke highly of how great we played, which is great to hear from our international peers.”

It all came together in game three, as the Thunderbirds defeated UL Bohemians 62-0.

“In the third game, Player of the Match was Makenna Tuman, who was one of the youngest kids on tour – she and Aly Cunningham,” Fisher said of the outside center from Pittsburgh. “We had been waiting for Makenna to take off and we got what we were looking for from her in this game. She really blossomed and let her legs run a little bit. She’s an athletically gifted player – speed, height, weight, strength – she’s got it.”

Haley Crow (Catholic Memorial, Wisc.) and Gina Pollice (Grandville, Mich.) were the MVPs of the first two games, while teammates Alle English, Jenna Klenz, Makinizie Youngblood and Emily Rahja earned high praise for stellar performances across the whole tour.

Fisher was effusive in his thanks and appreciation to Irish Rugby Tours, for its professionalism and care in creating an unforgettable experience. It was such a positive first outing that the Midwest is already talking about plans for the next tour abroad.

“All the local unions – Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa – were reaching out asking how everyone did and posting stuff. They were already big supporters but they’re happy that kids from their unions were able to get out and take trips like this. They thanked us for what we provide for their kids so it’s good to hear that our hard work is being noticed by unions, who are creating that talent,” Fisher said. “Bob Cronquist, the Midwest Youth director, is eager to set something up and so we’re looking at summer 2021 to go back – maybe somewhere else.”

The Midwest has already held its tryout camp for the 2020 cycle and had 40 athletes attend in July. The team will return to St. Petersburg, Fla., for matches against the USA South in January and has a good idea of what that player pool looks like. Nevertheless, Fisher will be visiting Midwest high school competitions and hosting player clinics this fall to broaden the search. He encourages unions to book the coach – Indiana is setting up a clinic for October – to introduce more players to the all-star program.

“We want to scout in the unions themselves because we know it’s hard to send kids to our camps, so if we can get to where their kids are, then it’s easier,” Fisher concluded.

That means that players interested in a 2021 international tour will need to get involved in the tryout process for summer 2020, because that’s when the planning and selection will begin.

For more information, contact coach Fisher.

Midwest Thunderbirds #BabyBirds

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