All photos: Kalina Hurst / Cairn Photography (from West Ada District Championship)
Since 2018, West Ada has been Idaho’s only school district that sponsors girls’ high school varsity rugby, but fall 2021 saw the Boise school district join the scene. The addition allowed for the first-ever state 7s championship for single-school varsity programs, and last Saturday, Eagle High School took top honors with a final 38-26 against Meridian.
The Mustangs were happy to win the first state championship; however, there were other motivations for triumphing in the final leg of the post-season.
“Districts was a weird feeling,” Eagle head coach Kraig Smikel said. “It was a celebration that we won districts but a lot of the girls, even the coaches, had the feeling that we didn’t play our best. I think a lot of the girls over-hyped it in their heads and they focused so much on the outcome that, ironically, when you do that, it leads to bad play because your head is somewhere else.”
Captain Cheyenne Wheelen expressed similar feedback after winning the West Ada district championship, and so the mental game became the focus for the week leading up to states. The coaches did some research and then spent the Monday film session reviewing scenarios that trigger anxiety and the means – like breathing exercises, mistake rituals – to resolve those situations. During practice, the coaches interrupted play with yellow and red cards, moved players into different positions and different teams, so everyone could adapt and employ those skills to reduce panic.
That targeted preparation proved useful, if not prophetic.
“This team has been here before,” Smikel said of the state championship. “In the spring, we lost in the 15s final. At districts, they saw the same thing where they were so in their heads. ‘We cannot keep doing this. We understand where we’re coming from.’ So they responded well to the mental training.”
The Boise school district sent three teams to states, and they faced their West Ada counterparts in the quarterfinals. Eagle took the first-round bye in the seven-team competition. All of the West Ada teams won their matches: Owyhee beat Timberline 29-5, Meridian topped Capital 32-5 and Mountain View shut out host Mountain Home 45-0.
In the semifinals, Eagle beat Owyhee 21-10, while Meridian eliminated Mountain View from title contention with a 24-14 victory.
The finalists lined up for the state championship, and then a test arose for Eagle. Fewer than two minutes into the game, Reece Woods, whom Simek considers the front-runner for defensive player of the year, was red-carded. (Note: The red card citation was later overturned by the disciplinary committee.)
“In 7s, if you get a red card, it’s like a death sentence,” Simek said. “Thank goodness we spent the time focusing on head space because it’s nearly impossible to play with six players for an extended amount of time [and win]. But the girls responded immediately and didn’t panic.
“It’s a nightmare, for sure, but when you get something like that, it can go one of two ways,” the coach continued: “It’s either, ‘We’re doomed. We’ll never do this.’ Or, ‘Hey, we’re going to focus and do what we need to do.’ We always say, ‘Do your job,’ and that’s where the girls took it mentally. ‘I’m going to do my job and we’re going to get this done.’ It was a weird blessing in disguise, because it just shifted the focus to: This is the ultimate moment where we have to play as a team and trust each other to get their jobs done.”
A shootout ensued, and Meridian held the lead heading into halftime. Eagle used the break to make some substitutions and get more speed on the pitch, since there was more ground to cover. The counter-rucking and poaching game needed to adjust as well, and priority had to go to setting the defensive line for the next phase of play.
“Everybody stepped up,” Smikel asserted, “but I would say Olivia Woods, Reece’s twin sister, stood out, just in the way she responded. Usually she’s a bit more aggressive in the breakdowns and everything like that, but that was one of the things we called off because we didn’t have that extra layer of security. Her natural instinct is to be very aggressive in the breakdown and she shifted her game to best fit the situation we were in.”
Jordynn LeBeau also earned high praise. Reece Woods is the varsity kicker, and LeBeau had been off dropkick duty since the summer. She slotted four of six conversions.
“That’s big,” Smikel said. “In a game like this, you need those conversions to keep up. It was a high-stress, shootout environment and she was phenomenal.”
Scrumhalf Wheelen had done a great job managing the breakdowns and moving the ball quickly away from contact, and then reserve Whitney Pilling came on for some added speed. She did a great job responding to the pressure and pumping up the defense.
Hailey Revel-Whitaker and Karlee Allington were superb in creating line-break and scoring opportunities for teammates. They’re both adept at hitting the gap between two defenders, drawing them to the tackle, and then offloading to teammates in newly created space. That play-making allowed speedster Katelyn Walker, who ended the final tournament with six tries, to put points on the board.
“She is heart and soul,” Smikel said of Walker. “She’s a great tackler and usually our sweeper, but she came up in the line and worked hard on defense and covered line-breaks when they happened. Of course she’s an absolute speed demon on the field and just racked up a lot of tries.”
By game’s end, Eagle scored six tries to Meridien’s four for the 38-26 win and state title.
“Our S&C coach, who is a teammate of mine from college, said it was one of those things that you know shouldn’t have happened. You don’t win 7s matches with six players on the field,” Smikel said. “It was amazing to do and I’m so proud of them, but at the same time, I wish it was easier for them.”
The players enjoyed the victory, though, and it salved the disappointment they felt after the district championship.
“The girls have taken this as just one more step to be better. Ultimately that’s what they strive for. The want to be the best versions of themselves that they can be,” Smikel said. “Afterward some of them were joking – well, I think they were joking – that they should be in the weight room and do film today even though the season’s o
ver. They see this as something special and want to build on it.”
Smikel knows the team will roll these successes into the spring season and that players are eyeballing a state 15s championship. He also knows that the mental-game training will continue.
“As a coach it’s kind of a sweet spot for me,” Smikel said of winning the first state 7s championship. “We started the West Ada league in 2018 and Eagle was the number one seed into that tournament. Unfortunately our first match with Rocky Mountain went into overtime and we gassed out. So after losing the opportunity to take home the first 7s district championship, and then to turn around and have the best regular-season record, win districts and be state champions, it’s really special. It’s one of those moments that will be marked in history and the way that we did it makes it more special.”
Click here for full results from the state championship.