Photo courtesy Atlanta Harlequins Instagram (@ahwrfc)
It wasn’t that long ago that the Atlanta Harlequins’ DII side was drawing just eight players to practice. Recruitment efforts had fallen off but then an injection of energy and committed coaching stepped in to rebuild the ranks to 35 active players in two years. Now, Atlanta’s DII side is making its first-ever appearance at nationals as the South champ.
Becky Martin, Sharon Lau and Amanda Lam launched a recruitment drive that attracted a range of players. From college grads, to rehabbing veterans, to first-timers and those looking to springboard to the WPL, Martin described the new team as “a beautiful mosaic” of the rugby landscape. Players like Mary Howard and Brandalyn Watts were the on-field motivators and kept momentum building.
“Southern rugby ebbs and flows really hard. If you ever take your foot off the gas of trying to recruit all the time or staying intentional and start to coast, you’ll struggle,” said coach Martin. “I played for DII years ago and took my eye off the ball when I was playing WPL, but now that I’m old and slow I have the privilege to come back for this amazing revamp.”
That cycle intensifies with the split season, as squads change from the fall and spring. Cynthia Kelly, for example, played a big role in the fall before returning to Life in 2019. Three of Atlanta’s Carolinas-Georgia matrix matches fell in the spring, which meant the Quins had those three games alone to get newcomers eligible for the post-season. Martin doesn’t like to put more than five new players on the field together at once, “because then you’re not growing together,” and the management did a great job allotting minutes. The Quins outscored regular-season opponents 472-37.
“I never feel confident, ever,” Martin said of lopsided stats. “But we did know that we had returners who were going to be strong. We’re in that DII/DI bubble and have players who look like South DII and also players who are caught between the WPL, which isn’t a good fit, and DII, which is not as challenging as it should be. We just need more rugby to be happening.”
Atlanta is fortunate to be close logistically and personnel wise to Life University, and scrimmages against the DI Elite runner-up always bring the best out of players. The Quins were also pleased to book a match against Charlotte, now competing in the DI East, for a competitive push.
Captaining the team are Ashley Prusak, a flanker with a wide skill set, and Megan Doran, a tactically sound player who runs the show from scrumhalf. They receive ample support from influential players like Janay Peacock, Caitlane Fricia, Bianca Miller, “and one of my favorites – ‘Big Meg,’ who gains more meters after contact than anyone and has zero pounds to spare,” Martin praised Meg Steffes. “Our smallest pack player who has a lion’s heart.”
The younger class has also found its voice and is getting powerful performances out of people like Jill Casey, Danielle Jackson, Kristen Bolt, Shanice Bond and Nakia Lee. They were especially critical during the South championship semifinal against Knoxville, the True South champion.
“Put an asterisk next to them,” Martin said of the Minx. “They are a team to watch.
“We knew it was going to be an 81-min match. There’s no quit in their spirit,” the coach continued. “It was insanely hot and we had a couple of young players step up. We got a red card early so we played 14-on-15 on the surface of the sun for 70 minuets, which is a tall ask for any athlete.”
Atlanta won 33-10, and Martin pointed to 19-year-old Amelia Deering and 20-year-old Gabby Nelson for putting their hands up when senior players started to struggle. Both are younger sisters to Quins.
That set up a South final against Fort Miami, which had defeated Savannah 48-12 in its semifinal. Atlanta had some intel on the Florida squad – namely that former Quin Kim Semiglia gets time at flyhalf and deploys a good kicking game, and the back three would be tough to handle.
“Fort Miami has one of the most explosive backs units I’ve seen in a long time,” Martin said of prep. “We made some personnel changes to build the right defensive package to manage that threat.”
Atlanta responded well to those threats and won the South title 40-0.
“When the Quins get going they’re a pretty tough team to manage because there are so many threats. It’s hard to isolate because if you shut down one player, another one gets going,” Martin said. “But regardless of the score line we were really challenged in a lot of areas, and we need to be more intentional.”
Since Souths, Atlanta has been cleaning up its system and getting logistics in order for the trip to Spartanburg, S.C. The Harlequins will play Buffalo in the first round while Harrisburg and Providence face off.
“This is our first time to [the Eastern Regional Championship] so there’s no sense that we belong here. We want to see how far we can go and continue to push,” Martin said. “They’re rallying around the idea of continually testing themselves and enjoying the idea of: We want to play good rugby and see what that looks and feels like game in and game out.”
The team that goes 2-0 on the weekend will advance to the national championship against the western rep.