It’s been four years since Houston Athletic Rugby Club (HARC) defeated Austin in league play, but the team has banked two wins against the Valkyries halfway through this DI Red River season. There’s still a lot of rugby to play, but Houston is feeling good about this year’s team.
“It’s definitely a special year,” said HARC stalwart and Eagle prop Nick James, who is also the Texas A&M head coach. “It’s been a couple of years in the making for sure. We’ve had several quality players on the team in years past, but our cohesion and chemistry on the field weren’t quite there. We’d have moments of greatness but couldn’t put it together enough to get the wins. This year, everything is coming to fruition.”
When considering the core of the squad, James pointed to the halfback pairing of Barbara Blair and Kiana Curl, who is an absolute energizer when it comes to rallying the team. They’re consistent and improvement-minded, and the team has built up around them. James had equal praise for No. 8 Leslie Schroeder, who is the emblem of relentless work ethic.
But it was the change in the back line that saw HARC enjoy another level of success.
“We added a lot of players this year but we’ve added two with experience to the back line and they’ve been the missing pieces,” James said of former Twin Cities Amazon Kate Stephens and All-American Bonnie Richardson back from injury. “They’re dynamic players and they add electricity to the attack. We’ve always had a consistent, dominant pack but now we have the back line to match.”
The team played two Gold Cup games before getting into the Red River season, traveling to Albany, N.Y., to play the Sirens and Boston. HARC lost both of those games, and while those matches served as a performance marker, it was the hypothermia-inducing conditions that left the biggest impression.
“The team definitely left with an appreciation for weather in Texas,” said James, who was in Europe touring with Eagles at that time. “But it helped build mental toughness. ‘If we can survive that, then we can survive anything.’”
During the Red River league-opener on Dec. 15, there were times when HARC had to summon that resolve. HARC built a healthy lead after 25 minutes, and then the Valkyries rallied with three-straight tries in the final 10 minutes of the half, trailing 29-22 into the break. After another 10 minutes of jousting, Houston dug deep for four tries over 20 minutes and ended with a 53-36 win.
“Every time you play a team you want to beat them, but it’s been a couple of years [since we beat Austin], and you remember losing to them in spring 2018 and the feeling of not going to playoffs. But we knew we had the players and that we could offer a competitive game, and that the scorelines didn’t really reflect how well we played,” James said. “It was a slow boil up to the point of that [Dec. 15] game, and then on game day we were incredibly focused and honed in. We had three-and-a-half months [of fall training] built up in us so we were 100% ready for the game.”
A month later, HARC shut out the Dallas Harlequins 73-0, and the second of three games against the Valkyries went down on Jan. 26.
“The second game proved to us and others that it wasn’t a fluke,” James said. “We knew we were capable; it was making sure we execute.”
HARC had built a 26-point lead and then Austin owned the middle 20, dotting down three tries for a 26-19 scoreline 60 minutes in. The team acknowledged that it had come out flat for the second half, rededicated themselves to their roles, and put Schroeder (2) and Curl away for tries and the 41-19 win.
“For me, as a forward, our backline can do some really amazing things,” James explained how the unit adrenalized the team in those turn-around moments. “They’re pretty much all speed, 9 to 15, and it’s a wonderful motivation as a forward to look up and see the back line going through the hands and getting it out wide to the speedster, breaking the line for 10 meters and then 20 meters. It’s a huge motivation.”
There are three teams in DI Red River, and they play each other three times apiece during league season. Both Austin and HARC add in Gold Cup games, which will see double-header weekends in Texas (Philadelphia, Raleigh) and Minnesota (Valkyries, Detroit) in late March and early April.
“Everyone’s starting to build up confidence and realize we really do have potential and also have a lot of work to do between now, the three league matches and the two Gold Cup weekends,” James concluded. “It will be a good opportunity for us to test where we are, coming from November to end of March. We’ll be able to see how much we’ve grown and developed, and it’ll be good to play different teams.”
This weekend sees the Harlequins and Valkyries play their third match of the league season. Click here for more info on the league.