Above photo: Suzanne Patton. Below photo: Brenda Whalen
It’s the first big weekend in Ohio’s DI high school league, and it will serve as a first look into the state’s best team, St. Joseph Academy, as it takes on Highland Sunday.
St. Joe got a head start on the regular season and traveled to Indiana state champion North Central for a pair of wins. Although the games highlighted some areas of improvement, head coach Jaime Cleary was excited by what she saw.
“We had 12-13 graduate last year, but we’re lucky to have rookies replace those numbers,” Cleary said of her 40-deep roster, which is now competing with lacrosse, St. Joe’s newest spring sport. “When the girls graduated last year and those spots opened up, the players were motivated to claim them. With numbers, players are fighting for those positions every week.”
In Indiana, Cleary was pleased by the tackle completion as well as the potency of the back line. Senior halfbacks Rachael Kean and Kerry Reddy are at the hub of the back attack. Flyhalf Kean has committed to Penn State, and she has a really strong connection with scrumhalf Reddy on and off the field. Placing them beside each other on the pitch was an easy decision for Cleary.
“We lost our fullback Amanda Burns to graduation. We only had five points scored on us last year, and I attribute that to her,” Cleary said. “But now we have her younger sister, Frankie, a freshman, and she’s training as wing/fullback. She’s looking phenomenal and will be as good as – and probably a little better – than her sister.”
Cleary is also excited to have a little meat in the pack, which has eluded the team in the past. The forwards are focusing on their rucking, controlling the pace of the game and nailing down positioning. The coach is looking forward to incorporating more diverse lineouts and will lean on the leadership of returners like junior prop Annie Rolf and hooker Rebecca Sullivan. Rolf is a veteran of the Stars & Stripes and has stayed active at the representative levels, accompanying the Midwest U19s on their recent Florida tour (read more).
St. Joseph has separated itself from the in-state competition and is a title-contender at the Midwest championship. The team has, however, underperformed at nationals, as the previous three events have coincided with senior prom.
“It’s a tough decision. Either you choose the sport you love and everything you’ve been working toward, or a once-in-a-lifetime event like prom,” Cleary said. “We took three of 12 seniors to nationals last year, and it hurts. We played in the 5th/6th place game, but maybe we could have been in the 3rd/4th place game. But that’s how it goes.”
Cleary has attempted to work with the school and move the date of senior prom, and although the academy has done so for track in the past, it’s been inflexible for rugby thus far. As such, the team sees the Midwest Championship as more of a pinnacle, taking on longtime powers like Divine Savior Holy Angels and Catholic Memorial.
But Cleary still wants her players testing themselves against the best, and it’s why she’s looking at California’s Fullerton Invitational next year, and why she started the Celtic Elite’s girls team last year. When Rugby Ohio announced that it couldn’t support an all-star team for the second year in a row, Cleary created the select side’s girls team. She coached the squad in three tournaments last summer, including the Midwest All Star Challenge and the Regional All Star Tournament in Pittsburgh. This year, the select side coach is looking to travel even farther, potentially Toronto and Army West Point, among other locations.
But there’s still a lot of rugby to play before summer plans are nailed down. St. Joe’s DI and DII sides will contest their regular seasons, which will be broken up by the Midwest Championship on April 30-May 1. The results there will play a big role in the seeding for the Single-School National Championship, which occurs May 21-22 at Lindenwood University (St. Charles, Mo.). The Ohio State Championship starts at the semifinal phase on May 28, and the final will be contested Saturday, June 4.