On the surface, the New York state high school championship resembled a David and Goliath situation. In one corner was Play Rugby Academy, a high-performance select side that sources its players from the five-borough New York City network. In the other corner was Buffalo-based Orchard Park, a single-school team that relies on its non-traditional athletes. But Orchard Park was unintimidated, a consequence of winning the 2015 state title over Play Rugby, and retained the championship trophy with a hard-fought 14-10 win Sunday.
The finalists advanced after convincing semifinal victories Saturday: Play Rugby defeated City Honors 41-5, and Orchard Park bettered Saratoga 72-0. The teams were in good physical shape for Sunday, but Orchard Park was in flux. Saturday’s high school prom involved 12 players, and only four made the 400-mile roundtrip twice to compete in both playoff games. Although not the ideal scenario for a championship weekend, the team adapted well.
“Coming from the same high school, they’re so devoted to each other, and that translates on the field,” said Orchard Park coach Lisa Huff Henrich, who is assisted by forward coaches Amanda and Franklin Thompson. “We have family members on the team and sisters who are former players in the stands – they’re patient and they encourage each other. They make mistakes and immediately move on. Some other teams, they make mistakes and get frustrated with each other.”
Discipline under pressure became a deciding factor in the final, but not before Play Rugby Academy took the first lead with a well worked try, 5-0.
“I know how good they are and that we couldn’t let it get wide, because they have more speed than us,” Henrich said. “My team played a physical style all season and was confident that we could hold up against that pressure. Their defense shut us down, but we persevered in a slow, steady manner with lots of rucks. We weren’t afraid to run the ball back into them because they were giving up lots of penalties – like last year – and we knew we’d get the ball back.”
Back-to-back yellow cards gave Orchard Park a player advantage for 20 minutes. Two quick-tap penalties put inside center Emily Henrich in for two first-half tries. She converted both scores for the 14-5 halftime lead.
Back to full strength, Play Rugby Academy worked another beautiful score into the try zone, 14-10. And then it was a rainy race to the final whistle. Co-captain Henrich played like a woman possessed and made several try-saving tackles to keep the New York City squad at bay. Paired with the ever-consistent Abby Bielicki at outside center, the duo led in the way of tackling and work rate in the rucks. No. 8 and co-captain Hannah Riccardi was the emotional leader on the pitch and kept the team focused while Play Rugby Academy pressured for one more score. Junior Frangelica Bautz stepped up big time. The small but powerful ice hockey player stepped into scrumhalf after the influential Emily Speyer graduated last year, and controlled the game from the #9 spot.
Orchard Park withstood Play Rugby Academy’s onslaught for the 14-10 win and repeat state title, but the trophy affects more than just the record books. For Orchard Park, the team must now alter its recruitment strategies. The high school team appealed to non-traditional athletes, but two state titles starts to become intimidating. Generally, Orchard Park’s second state championship is a victory for single schools, especially those that feel clubs’ advantages produce an uneven playing field.