slide 1
slide 1

NOTE: Only paying subscribers have access to locked content. LEARN MORE.

Overfelt HS Makes History in NorCal

  • 18 Dec 2021

Photo: Instagram @wcoroyalrugb

If you attended any of the Rugby NorCal High School 7s tournaments this fall, then you definitely know William C. Overfelt High School. The East San Jose program fielded two squads during its first-ever season this fall, and the team’s near-field headquarters was always ebullient – peaking when the Royals won the Bowl championship. That season-ending victory was especially rewarding given the many obstacles that the coaches and players had to overcome just to field a team, practice safely, and garner respect.

Susanna Guardado discovered rugby at Humboldt State University and learned the game from hooker. She wasn’t able to compete in any games due to her age, but the sport remained with her. For the past 13 years, Guardado has been funneling her energy into coaching soccer.

“One day I asked the girls if they wanted to learn something different,” Guardado said after her first year with the Overfelt J.V. soccer team. “At first they didn’t really care. I told them about rugby and organized a full-on scrimmage on the last day of soccer practice, just to see if they’d like it, and just like that, they fell in love like I did.”

Galaxy Guardado / Photo: Jackie Finlan (TRB)

Guardado’s two daughters, Yesenia and Galaxy, were on the soccer team and had a season’s worth of rugby with another club – but that was the extent of the experience.

“The girls were fearless. They just enjoyed it,” the coach remembered that 2019 run-out. “One of the girls came to me and wanted to start a team, but I didn’t think much of it. I just thought it was the happiness of the moment.”

Nevertheless, Guardado started gauging interest for a rugby team and reached out to the school principal for initial feedback. He wasn’t opposed to the idea but deferred to the other stakeholders and the athletic director’s input.

“I planted the seed in 2019 but nothing happened,” Guardado said of the early run-around. “And then Covid hit.”

The pandemic put a hold on any new business and then in summer of 2020, Guardado got her first solid, “no” for a new program, as the principal cited the school district’s insurance and liability concerns.

“I was getting the ‘no’s, but behind the scenes I was trying to figure out how we can make it happen,” Guardado said. “At this point, it had been about a year since we first asked the school and the girls had started recruiting because they believed there was a way. Even though we had no support from the school, we wanted to be ready to hit the ground running after Covid, just in case.”

Yesenia Avalos / Photo: Jackie Finlan (TRB)

Guardado then reached out to Milpitas coach Mark Doyle for advice and he recommended making the rugby team a club sport first, instead of petitioning for varsity status right away. That distinction gave the effort new life.

“I told my daughters, ‘You need five people to make an official school club. Find me seven girls and then create a student body in order to make it happen,’” Guardado recited the direction to Yesenia and Galaxy. “Twelve girls showed up to a virtual meeting. That’s when I e-mailed the principal, ‘I have 12 girls interested in rugby. How do we make it official?’”

Yesenia Avalos became the club president and was very driven to bring the team to fruition. The senior did a lot of the recruitment, posted flyers, created the team’s Instagram account, and much more.

“My other daughter is more of a jock, so to speak,” Guardardo said of Galaxy, also a senior. “She started recruiting athletes she already knew as well as her soccer friends, convincing them to join. She became the vice president.”

Junior Julissa DeAnda signed on as treasurer, and junior Zayda Jaimes became secretary, and the quartet did a lot of the behind-the-scenes work. Guardado’s partner, Joser Avalos, also joined as assistant coach.

Julissa DeAnda / Photo: Jackie Finlan (TRB)

The administration approved the creation of the rugby club in August 2021. It was a big win, but the principal reminded Guardado that field space was limited due to football and the school would provide zero funding. Additionally, the quartet and coaches had to raise money within a month, teach a completely new sport to an entire community, and make sure the club was following Associated Student Body protocols.

“We had a lot to do in such little time,” the coach said.

Guardado anticipated some barriers to recruitment and spent the downtime during the pandemic addressing those concerns. She shared film of international women’s games, so players could see that tackling without pads isn’t as scary as it sounds. Then once some comfort showed itself, the coach asked players to watch game film and give feedback, so she could understand how players interpreted the sport. Guardado noticed that many recruits were soccer players, so she started researching soccer converts who now thrived as rugby players, and built off of that connection. The coach also started learning more about college rugby opportunities, and that was a big hook for the girls.

“Many of our students come from low-income households and think about going to college but don’t believe it’s for them because of money,” Guardado emphasized.

Unexpectedly, the Royals’ own peers were a source of stress as well.

“We had a controversy on social media, where football boys – once they found out we were starting a rugby team – started verbally attacking our girls by calling them lesbians and dykes in a derogatory way,” Guardado said. “But little did they know, that seemed to have pumped up more girls to join just to prove a point. The Royal team not only stopped the controversy, they stood up for their peers who do identify as gay.”

Soleana Chavez / Photo: Jackie Finlan (TRB)

On Sept. 1, 2021, Overfelt held its first full-contact practice, but with each step forward, as the team was beginning to realize, a new challenge awaited. The practice space allotted to the rugby team was full of potholes and uneven surfaces making it dangerous enough to ultimately force the team to relocate to the 15’ x 25’ shot-put space on turf. With no funding, the team had to borrow balls and cones from Rugby NorCal to work on passing drills. Sprints were limited to 15 meters, so coach Avalos bought some ladders and hurdles for agility drills. With no tackle pads, it was difficult to introduce contact. The team was happy to finally start practicin
g – especially with 18 players on board – but frustrated by their lack of resources. So while the group of rookies fixated on a new sport, they also dedicated themselves to fundraising – selling food, asking for donations– and brought in three times their initial goal: $11,000.

With that, all of the players’ registration fees were paid for and the two teams were fully kitted out for the Rugby NorCal High School 7s season. The teams played their first-ever games on Oct. 2 at Carondelet High School in Concord.

“Our girls were very nervous because they were playing teams they never heard of,” Guardado said. “They did some research and were very intimidated because they were private schools or predominantly white, and we don’t have many white students at our school. Once we arrived at the field, they didn’t want to warm-up, they were in shock, culturally shocked. The girls were so scared and felt out of place, they wanted to throw up.”

But the varsity side’s first game wasn’t as bad as expected, and Overfelt won its second game, and lost their third game by a try.

“After that, our captain, Jhoana Burrel, said, ‘We could have had this. If only we had the space to practice how to swing the ball across the field like the other schools. If only we had a full field so we could sprint farther than 15 meters,” Guardado noted the junior’s turning point. “She started analyzing all that and developed a competitive captain’s vision.”

Captain Jhoana Burrel / Photo: Jackie Finlan (TRB)

Burrel wanted her team to realize their potential and suggested to the principal that rugby could use football’s field space after football ended their practices. The school acquiesced, provided lights at the field, but then football started staying longer and pushed rugby off its field, and there was no one to advocate for the rugby team.

“We changed our practice time to 6:30 p.m. so we could have field space, and that was putting the girls at risk because it was too dark when we finished, but they didn’t care. They just wanted to learn,” Guardado said. “The San Jose Police Department has identified our neighborhoods as some of the hottest areas for crime and gang affiliation. So we’re ending practice at 8:30 p.m., girls have to walk home, and it’s not safe. Coach and I would give them rides or wait until their parents would pick them up.

“A lot of these girls have a lot of stress at home,” the coach explained that many players come from low-income and poor families. “There’s mental, emotional and physical abuse and they joined because they’re trying to release everything they shelter inside.”

There were four weeks of tournaments during the regular season, and Rugby NorCal held concurrent events in the Bay Area and Sacramento region. Fourteen single-school teams featured in at least one tournament.

“During the season I saw the competition level rise within themselves,” Guardado said of the players’ growth. “They started saying, ‘We can do that. We’re not scared of that team anymore.’ … Most importantly, the players started believing in themselves and began building community with the other schools. They really started hustling and the talk went from, ‘If we get [to playoffs],’ to, ‘When we get [to playoffs].’”

Destiny Rivera Ascencio / Photo: Jackie Finlan (TRB)

Leading the way is captain Burrel, who brings excellent field vision from soccer as well as a boot that serves the team’s kicking game. The junior is the team’s leading scorer and a huge driving force for the program. Soleana Chavez is also a junior who brings a soccer goalkeeper background to the pitch. She’s the strongest, most solid player on the team, per Guardado. Galaxy and DeAnda bring excellent speed to both sides of the ball, equally dangerous with ball in hand and launching on defense. And Yesenia is a rock at hooker and very comfortable running in open space and sucking in the defense.

As the season progressed, the Royals continued to bond and a strong sense of pride developed. Overfelt is the first girls’ high school team out of San Jose and the first fully rostered Mexican-American team (with only two non-Mexican players) on their team. That sense-of-self emanated and players kept recruiting even though the season was nearly over.

“It’s really fun, and we’ll have a 15s team in the spring, so you should come out,” Guardado quoted the players’ pitch to schoolmates.

Through the Nov. 6 qualifier tournament, Overfelt’s varsity team advanced to the Rugby NorCal Bowl competition, which took place on Nov. 13 alongside the Cup bracket. The team took a 28-passenger bus from the South Bay, and brought all of their energy and verve to the pastoral pitches in Sacramento.

“The last two weeks before the championship, the girls were so focused at practice,” Guardado said. “There was no, ‘Let’s see if we can tie this team.’ They were there for one thing: to win.”

Soph. Aulani Leulu / Photo: Jackie Finlan (TRB)

The day started with a 20-5 win against Berkeley, and then a 29-5 victory against the Cougars (Carondelet’s second side). The final was against the also-undefeated St. Mary’s second team, and the sides were tied 5-5 with 30 seconds on the clock. That’s when Chavez broke free to score the winning try: 10-5 the final.

RELATED: Carondelet Wins NorCal Cup

“The whistle blew and these girls ran and screamed toward me and my partner,” Guardado said. “I was the quiet one. I was in shock. It was such a joy to see that. … They ran across the field to their parents and were the happiest I’ve ever seen them.

“There was another staff member from Overfelt that believed in them and he was there at the tournament,” Guardado said of Coach Miguel “Chief” Esparza. “He brought the Overfelt Belt, and only one other team – men’s basketball – has ever carried it before. That was a double whammy and the girls were screaming that they get to hold that now. And then Jason [Divine] came over with the Bowl, and these girls were just cheering the whole time. They didn’t let him finish talking.”

Coach Esparza sent a photo of the team with the Overfelt Belt to the principal, and within an hour the principal had posted it on Facebook with the caption, “Who’s the best at rugby? Overfelt Royals!” The team’s accomplishments were also included in the weekly newsletter to parents.

Burrel and Yesenia have leaned into that support, and told the principal that if they also win in 15s, then they better have space for rugby on the football fields.

Overfelt is excited to experience 15s, but players and staff are thinking beyond the spring. College rugby is a new and unexpected opportunity, and the players are eager to learn about potential next steps. Having plodded through the process herself, Guardado is reachin
g out to local schools to see if there’s interest in starting rugby teams. And now that the girls have done so well, there’s interest for a boys’ team at Overfelt, but Guardado asserted that that effort will rest with her partner as she will focus on the girls.

Seniors Yesenia and Galaxy have already drawn interest from collegiate programs, including NCAA teams that compete in the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association. These early successes have encouraged the current juniors to look into other potential colleges for when their time comes.

“I want to thank the rugby community for helping us and guiding us,” Guardado closed, with tears. “Without your support, we would not exist.”

Article Categories:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.