The Rugby NorCal High School Invitational has served as an important preview and warm-up for the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), and today also hosts a healthy middle school division that draws teams from outside the region and state. Sunday featured an all-SoCal final for the high schools, and South Bay took the 17-5 win over Fallbrook.
“This is really the first tournament, the first games, where we were able to play as a unit,” said South Bay head coach Myron Mailo. “We had two first-time players out there with our starting unit, and they got a lot of minutes – they never came off the field.”
The Spartans took a few injuries during the Fullerton and Las Vegas tournaments, but those players are returning to form and rejoining the squad. Notably, prop Mercie Vivao and No. 8 Zonaye Tupuola were back on the pitch, and they were difference-makers in Livermore.
But building fitness and thus limiting injuries have become top priorities for the Spartans. Coach Mailo explained that the experience of last year’s team saw the staff overlook the importance of fitness, but that’s been rectified for this year.
“We like to play similar to Fallbrook – like fast. We like to pound and switch it up,” the coach considered the preferred style of play and the fitness required to execute it. “We kind of looked at our pre-season and in-season training and made some adjustments, because we weren’t running them enough, because it was a veteran group. And that was our downfall. We went back to fundamentals and started running them a lot more, and it’s starting to show, but it’s still not there.”
Last year’s team graduated just four players, and veterans Puni Skipps and Ahnea Aupiu captain the team from flyhalf and flanker, respectively. Their leadership saw South Bay to a 43-7 win over Pleasanton and then 19-0 win over Land Park during day one of the NorCal tournament. In the opposite pool, Fallbrook shut out Lamorinda (36-0) and Sacramento (25-0) to set up the Sunday final.
Nearly the entire first half evolved without a score, as these two teams, very familiar with each other, exchanged blows. Fallbrook took its fends when players attempted to take on the bigger opposition up high, but the defense was resilient in holding off the ever-charging Spartans. It looked like the Warriors were finally relieving some pressure as Abbey Savin kicked into space and the chase was on. The line judge called Fallbrook out of bounds before the pass made it back into play, and South Bay used that lineout to put the speedy Amaya Moala away for the half-ending try.
“She’ll be an asset wherever she goes,” Mailo said of the fullback who is considering offers to play college ball. “She’s the one that we move all over the place – fullback, eightman, hooker. She’s pretty versatile; plays everything but scrumhalf.”
Fallbrook exerted pressure early in the second half, and South Bay took two yellow cards in attempting to quell the attack. Flanker Nathalie Celis, who is so dynamic, made good on the opportunities with the try, 5-5.
But even down a couple of players, South Bay was still able to push and keep play in Fallbrook’s end. Once back to full strength, a strip in the tackle saw the ball move to captain Skipps for a try. The flyhalf’s dropkick conversion hit the crossbar and rebounded over, 12-5. Toward the end of the match, Vivao, who served as a key hinge within the forwards to move the ball wide when requested, finished with a try in the corner, 17-5.
The win was a nice confidence boost for South Bay, and a good test for both teams, who are likely to see each other in the SoCal final. Both teams are also heading to the HS Club NIT in Salt Lake City, where California as a whole will have good representation. Pleasanton, Sacramento, Lamorinda and Land Park – also at the NorCal event – will be in Utah.
In the Middle School final, Fallbrook overcame a halftime deficit against Hawaii’s Kahuku to win 24-10. Kahuku’s High School team will also be in Salt Lake City competing for the club NIT title.