North Shore is one of several teams represented on the Thunderbirds / Photo: Jackie Finlan
The Midwest won the last 15s Club National All-Star Championship (NASC), in 2012. USA Rugby then discontinued a competition that had existed since 1987, and with nothing to play for, post-collegiate select sides disbanded en masse. In the years that followed, local and regional unions, and players themselves, acknowledged the void and began relaunching their adult all-star programs, and in 2019, the Midwest is officially back in the game.
RELATED: Read the original press release
The Thunderbirds (the all-star program for the Midwest Competitive Region [CR]) kept the U18 and U24 programs alive through Garret Fisher and Jeff Noe, respectively. The U24s are now led by Luke Markovich and Desiree Markovich, and the U18s are heading on tour to Ireland this summer. The seniors took a little more time but that’s not to say there wasn’t pressure for the revitalization.
“Players were frustrated to not have the opportunity to play at a higher level against better players and better teams. But [the interest] was bubbling in small pockets,” Midwest Senior Thunderbirds coach Jason Edsall said. “The Midwest [CR] wanted it as well, but the execution [of the relaunch] didn’t go as planned.”
The ideal setup has each of the eight Midwest unions fielding their respective senior all-star teams, with four apiece heading to East and West regional championships. Those two competitions would be used as selection venues for the East and West all-star teams, which would then compete in a championship game. From all of these games, a senior Midwest Thunderbird team would emerge and compete on tour. In the ideal of ideals, there would be an NASC in which to play.
Information did not disseminate as quickly or efficiently enough to realize that ideal in 2019, but Edsall and others were determined to put something on the pitch.
“This was the first year relaunching the program and it’s been a learning process getting the information out there,” said Edsall. “But we wanted to get it off the ground or we feared it would go fallow. The big thing was to get it started, develop the team and build some momentum so the players got this opportunity.”
And thus, Ohio and Allegheny combined to form an East team, while CARFU and Wisconsin also committed to all-star teams. The three squads met in Chicago on May 18 and played 30-minute halves against each other. Edsall was pleased by both the pro-rugby attitude and quality of talent on display, and relied on another 10 individuals to evaluate the players and offer feedback.
“I think we had some extremely talented players come out of the selection process,” Edsall said. “We had good representation – DI, DII and college players came out – but I’d like to see more. A lot of teams and unions didn’t send anyone, which is discouraging.”
But the players who did attend the Chicago event were not only able to sate their hunger for next-level rugby but also experience the variety of their own CR.
“Everyone’s bound so tightly to their home club and this is maybe the first time they can look at other players from across the Midwest,” Edsall said. “Players can see how close they are [in skill or talent], or you realize that a DII team in the West is really a DI team in the East. College players next to DI players, who they never thought they’d be able to keep up with.”
Edsall emphasized a “forward and back” model, that players in the all-star system not only take steps to better their individual games but then return to their home clubs and share the knowledge they’ve gleaned from the Thunderbirds. Same goes for the coaches involved.
“My hope is for one big all-star championship [nationally]. It’s the way to go, to promote evolving rugby, and this is an easy way to do it,” Edsall said of goals that go beyond the Midwest. “There are always issues of coordination and cost, but this allows players to network and develop and play with each other. It’s a disservice to the women’s side that we haven’t had this program in so long. I’m hoping other unions see our good product and use it as a focal point to what they’re doing.”
But there’s still a lot of work to do before the senior Thunderbirds reach that model status. Beyond the obvious of sharing information across the union, Edsall and organizers need to evaluate the numbers and interest in each union. That could mean for combination squads in the future, but that still allows those interested in all-star play, and beyond, to get their shot.
There are 30 players in the pool. There is a camp, and hopefully match, scheduled for July 21, and then the senior Thunderbirds will join the U24s at Can Ams in Saranac, N.Y. The hope is for another trial camp that will occur in the second half of the year and a tour in Nov.-Jan. The Texas All-Star Challenge is one possibility but the program is also exploring international options.
THUNDERBIRDS – 1ST TEAM1. Christina Kukla, Chicago Lions (CARFU)2. Noby Takaki, Chicago North Shore (CARFU)3. Brittany Zeller, Will County Morrigans (CARFU)4. Monica Christian, Cincinnati Kelts (OH)5. Shannon Will, Milwaukee Scylla (WI)6. Rachel Rogawski, Will County Morrigans (CARFU)7. Margaret Nedow, Milwaukee Scylla (WI)8. Tierney Morton, Wisconsin RC (WI)9. Rose DiBalsamo, Chicago North Shore (CARFU)10. Nicole Fisch, Chicago North Shore (CARFU)11. Chloe Correia, Pittsburgh Forge (Allegheny)12. Sarah Anderson, Chicago (CARFU)13. Michelle Fogelsanger, Chicago Lions (CARFU)14. Devon Gold, Chicago Lions (CARFU)15. Andrea Sanchez, Columbus RC (OH)
THUNDERBIRDS – 2ND TEAM / RESERVES
1. Beth Rose, Pittsburgh Forge (Allegheny)2. Amanda Anders, Milwaukee Scylla (WI)3. Nickole Burkett, Pittsburgh Forge (Allegheny)4. Steph Bowers, Columbus RC (OH)5. Gina Fanelli, Cincinnati Kelts (OH)6. Devonna Francis, Columbus RC(OH)7. Morgan Haggerty, Pittsburgh Forge (Allegheny)8. Maggie Hutchison, Wisconsin (WI)9. Bridget Kapinus, Chicago North Shore (CARFU)10. Kaity Kasper, Chicago North Shore (CARFU)11. Ariane Lozac’hmeur, Chicago (CARFU)12. Justine Perl, Cincinnati Kelts (OH)13. Kadie Sanford, Chicago North Shore (CARFU)14. Loren Schlei, Milwaukee Scylla (WI)15. Chloe Wickstrom, Pittsburgh Forge (Allegheny)