The Texas Rugby Union fielded a proper three-stop 7s series that readied teams for last weekend’s championship, an automatic qualifier for the USA Rugby DI College 7s National Championship. Sam Houston State entered the final tournament with an undefeated record and tacked on three more wins to finish 15-0 and with a Texas trophy. The Bearkats now have more than a month to sharpen up for the late-May trip to Tucson.
Sam Houston brought on Tyler Ayres this spring to serve as head coach for the 7s team. In 2015, Ayres established the women’s team at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and played three years of 7s before graduating. When Sam Houston’s men’s coach connected the two entities, the team was up-front about its wants.
“When I came into play, they all came to me with the same goal: make it to nationals,” Ayres said. “That knew that was their goal; they just didn’t know how they were going to get there, even though they’d been there before. They weren’t sure if it was going to be more difficult this year or offer different challenges.”
As Ayres began the familiarization process, the coach noted a solid foundation of technical skills, and thus prioritized conditioning before introducing different styles of the game. By the second series tournament in Austin, Ayres started to see marked improvement.
“It really came together for them and everything seemed to flow together as a unit,” the coach recalled. “All of the techniques that I had introduced and hadn’t quite made sense suddenly clicked.”
The series provided an array of opponents that ranged from Division I to NSCRO, and the lineup tested Sam Houston State’s ability to evaluate and adapt on the fly.
“Every team had a different playing style, whether it was a team that relied highly on their athletes’ speed, teams with a lot more brute strength, teams that were way more technical or aggressive,” Ayres said. “By the end of the season, they were able to go into a game with a different perspective and handled the diversity of their opposing teams in different manners.”
Ayres pointed to North Texas as the team’s biggest test.
“Their girls are very powerful and have their eyes on the prize. They play to the whistle,” Ayres said. “They’re aggressive and love their game, and won’t go down without a fight.”
Defensively, Sam Smith and Elena Garcia set the tone. They’re the team’s most powerful tacklers and are relentless in the chase. Torie Wheeler, Erin Ashley, Chris Thomas and Liz Rhea are the main offensive weapons.
“All of them bring a different strength to the field,” Ayres said. “Liz and Chris are definitely the speed behind our team, and Erin and Torie, they both have speed and that extra agility and technical skill to weave in and out of the defense.”
Together the team built a 12-0 record in advance of the championship tournament, which took an unconventional knockout format. Previous performance had no bearing on the final tournament, and so one loss meant nationals was off the table. Sam Houston State surged ahead unburdened, defeating Texas 43-0 and North Texas 27-5 in the quarterfinal and semifinals, respectively, and then lining up against Oklahoma in the final.
“Oklahoma definitely had the speed on us, so we knew we had to play strong defense to keep them back, which luckily we did,” Ayres said. “We had to keep them from making their breaks, and if we had a sloppy D line, they would find their way through.”
Sam Houston State did let through one try but triumphed with a 20-7 victory.
“Sam Houston isn’t a small school but it seems to fly under the radar. So it is a boost of confidence to know they can compete against these DI schools that might have more funding or more players – things that might give them the upper hand,” Ayres said. “No matter the adversity, they play their hearts out.”
There’s still more than a month before the national championship in Tucson, so there’s plenty of time to fine-tune and fundraise. Last year, Sam Houston went 0-5 in the “open” division against DI and DII teams. In 2019, they’re a year wiser and more experienced.
“Our goal is to win by any means necessary,” Ayres said. “They know it’s time to put their heads down, to put in the work on and off the field, get their cardio in and focus on these technical skills that they’re weak in. They want to go to Tucson with their heads up knowing they put in all the work to get there.”
With that said, Ayres isn’t worried about the motivation falling off.
“Coming in as my first season in the position of coach, I couldn’t be more proud of this group of girls,” Ayres said. “They show their willingness to learn and it’s refreshing to have a team that’s so coachable. They want to be the best they can be no matter what it takes, and I couldn’t be more proud.”