Summit High School is the dynasty in Colorado’s girls rugby and last featured at the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in 2016, the first year that the competition split into single-school and high school club. The Tigers return in 2019 has everything to do with the tournament’s location – Glendale, Colo. – and the players have embraced this unique, challenging process of learning 15s.
Rugby Colorado holds its state championship season for the girls in the fall, and there is no competition structure for the spring. Summit activates for the Las Vegas Invitational but the spring is for other sports and activities. Committing to the local NIT wasn’t necessarily a no-brainer, as Summit required both school approval and player buy-in. Fortunately, both of those contingencies were met in full.
“It’s really been fun,” Summit head coach Karl Barth enthused. “They’ve embraced the process for the sake of learning and challenging themselves, which is really cool in this day and age when kids are looking to take the easy road. This is not easy.”
The challenge isn’t just working around other sports and fitting in early morning training sessions or seniors negotiating those end-of-year responsibilities; it’s learning 15s. Colorado plays a 7s-only season in the fall, and it’s been three years since the Tigers played a 15s game. Senior prop Heidi Anderson is the last remaining player who that competed in that 2016 NIT.
The coaching staff was charged with building understanding in (by the time the NITs kick off) in 15 training sessions. Spatial awareness, the hows and whys of decision-making, tactical choices – they all needed work. But good fundamentals – from skills, to work rate, to urgency at the breakdown – were all there.
“We’re still figuring things out,” Barth said from a coaching point of view. “We’re throwing some things out there and if it sticks, then we keep moving forward. If it doesn’t, then we move on, because we just don’t have the time. It’s more consolidated.
“But we don’t run an over-scripted environment compared to many other 15s teams. It’s not ‘you and you have to be here,’ but ‘someone has to be here,’” the coach said. “We give them options and let them decide how to play. But nothing we teach them will change their mentality of being an attacking team; we couldn’t change that if we wanted to.”
The pack in particular had to absorb to a lot of information, from adding five more players to the scrum to understanding their crucial roles in creating space talented backs like PK Vincze, Nicole Kimball, CeCe Pennell, Clara Copley, Abigail Daugherty and more.
“The forwards were really excited to have some new toys to play with and relished the idea of not having to run around everyone all the time,” Barth said. “This group put in a lot of work and they’re really enjoying it.”
Players like Anderson, Jordan Elam and back-turned-flanker Isabel Keller are among the leaders up front and will set the tone. The team had three training sessions before putting its game into practice against HS Club NIT champion United. The teams met at Mesa State, on a beautiful pitch in the center of campus, and United won 101-0.
“A third to one-half of the team played in their first meaningful, high-level 15s game,” Barth said. “There were nerves for that game, and that’s why we wanted to play it. It was like the USA playing the Soviets before the Olympics – this could shut them down or build them up.
“We wanted to play someone like United so that if we did something right, then we knew it was right,” the coach continued. “We had high and lows with the scrimmage, which is what we expected, but the scrum held up nicely. That group has put in the most work because it’s the most change for them. They’re our blue collar players.”
Fortunately, the scrimmage didn’t dishearten the team. The players watched film and identified areas that looked good, could be fixed, and needed attention.
The Single-School NIT is closing in (May 18-19), and while Summit aims to honor its school, community and state (alongside Palmer), and take on opponents from around the country, the joy is really in the journey. It’s been a lot of work and maneuvering to put a 15s product on the pitch, and the Tigers intend to enjoy it.