South Bay seen here against Kahuku at the LVI /// See more photos from The Picture Lady
Many changes have occurred since South Bay won the DII national championship last year – boons like burgeoning numbers, as well as frustrations related to competition. Nonetheless, the Spartans are building toward another strong showing in SoCal and fixating on DI club nationals this year.
The most noticeable difference is the size of the club. Fifty-plus girls from the U14 level up are wearing Spartans kit. The U18s have good experience with nine seniors (all of whom will captain the team during at least one game this season) and have All American experience in Mililani Leui and Rian Moala. The team has also inherited six new players with rugby experience, chief among them is Girls High School All American Brianna Vasquez, who transferred from Fullerton along with four former Lions. Head coach Emo Pula estimates that 80% of players have four or more years of rugby experience.
“The girls see that it’s more competitive this year,” Pula said. “I try to stay fair with attendance and also ability and skill. You can be good as heck, but if you miss a practice, then I can’t start you. I can do that because our girls are all good. It’s not like I’m risking losing because I left out the best player.”
The team’s first showing occurred in mid-February at the all-high school TRIBE 7s pre-season tournament. As Pula selected the squad, she was surprised to find that half of the team had let their fitness lapse.
“Champions don’t just play two months and expect to win; it’s an all-year thing,” Pula said. “We’ve talked about it. All that hard work we did last year and we let ourselves go to start over again. It was disappointing.”
South Bay got back to work and 13 players came together to win the TRIBE 7s title. The Spartans were ready to play the following weekend in Santa Monica, but according to Pula, no one wanted to play the U18s (the U14s competed). That dearth of competition is a reality in SoCal’s three-team Gold Division, which is also occupied by Fallbrook and ICEF, and Pula has been working hard to build out its spring. The league has attempted to pad schedules with friendlies against Green Division teams (smaller, less experienced clubs), but those games don’t always come through.
So the coach looked toward the LVI as an opportunity but was disappointed to land only one 15s game. Although Hawaii’s Kahuku made for a great opponent. The team also played 10s against Wyoming on Friday before the Saturday game.
“It was a great way to start the season,” Pula reflected on the Kahuku game. “Their team is very similar to ours – body wise and strength wise. They have power and speed, and that’s what we have. It was tough and at the same time very competitive. Thank goodness my girls have power, too!”
Kahuku was emotional after the 35-12 loss, but the teams bonded, named each other’s MVPs, exchanged shirts – all that good rugby culture stuff.
Last weekend, South Bay suited up for its first SoCal league game against ICEF, which played 7s in Las Vegas. Another tough game evolved, but South Bay prevailed 20-5.
“The girls were challenged to create their own rhythm in the beginning,” Pula said. “ICEF has more speed, so our girls’ pace was too fast. We train them to play with speed but also control. This isn’t 7s; not everything is fast. So once they slowed it down and stopped killing themselves pace wise, it was smooth.”
Powerful forwards gained constant yardage, and the backs read and took their gaps well. The defense was especially good – realigning quickly and challenging the breakdowns.
South Bay will stay in action by sending four teams to the Champagne Classic this weekend and then hope its non-league game against Empire actually occurs. Perennial champ Fallbrook follows, and coach Pula has taken a different approach in preparing for the five-time reigning champion.
“Every year I’ve used Fallbrook as the example,” the coach said. “They symbolize our competition. When we played them last year – my husband and I, we KNOW we can beat Fallbrook. We have everything we need. But they just tighten up; it’s not them when we’re playing Fallbrook. I’ve wracked my brain: What is it? Did I set them up to be intimidated? So I’m trying something new. I don’t talk about Fallbrook or compare them, and I hope it changes their mindset. I want them to see Fallbrook as any other team and not have it be an all-year thing of me talking about it.”
South Bay will play Fallbrook at least twice and ICEF twice during the SoCal season, and the intention is to play in the DI competition at club nationals two months away. Stay tuned as the spring progresses.