Photo: Jack Phelan
The return of the USA Club 7s National Championship brings with it the revival of a storied 7s team: the Boston Belles. The city-based squad formed in 2010 – an important year in the history of the women’s championship – and dominated the Northeast for the few years it was active. After three appearances at nationals, the Belles disbanded, but were not forgotten.
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In 2010, the women’s community organized an invitational championship in an effort to show USA Rugby that there was interest and talent in a women’s division. The Belles finished third at that tournament, and then USA Rugby officially adopted the championship the following year. In 2011, the team finished runner-up to Berkeley, and then followed with two Bowl finishes before dissolving.
“My very first season of rugby was after the Belles’ last run at nationals,” said Claire Stingley, a long-time Beantown flanker. “So when I first joined, all I heard was how the Belles were such an amazing 7s team. Then it went away for several years. I’ve always wanted to play for the Belles. There’s this shared legacy between the two clubs, and I think there was this underlying desire to play together again.”
When talks of this year’s 7s nationals arose, Boston and Beantown were already primed for collaboration. The teams are active with the Northeast Academy, and got more exposure to each other through the New England Free Jacks. The MLR club is trying to expand its grassroots programs and fielded a women’s 15s team – the Independents – for training and an intersquad game earlier in the year.
“There were only about three summer 7s tournaments in New England, so for the first one, we both put in our sides,” Boston veteran Stacey Markovic said of Union Point 7s. “Then the call to apply for nationals went out, and both teams looked at their numbers, and they weren’t as high as they would have liked to enter a side. Having some crossover in other areas … it came up in conversation: Is it possible to combine for one team?”
Markovic and Beantown’s Olivia Benzan-Daniel polled their teams for interest and availability, and got the response they needed to commit to nationals. The duo prioritized transparency when communicating with the entire group, and Markovic worked with Free Jacks’ Ollie Engelhart to organize training.
“It’s been really awesome this summer to see both teams come together,” Stingley said. “We’ve been social for years. Most of us have been pretty close friends for years. Serendipitously we were already training at the same field at the same time. We’d have warm-up games against each other or mixed drills before splitting into sides that were competing that weekend. This summer gave us the chance to really get to know one another better and learn from one another. That’s what I’m taking away from this summer.”
Given the timing of the decision and the playing opportunities in the area, the Boston Belles were able to compete in (and win) one tournament together: Springfield 7s.
“We definitely got better as the day went on,” Markovic said. “We hadn’t played 7s together except for at training, so it was important to get the run-out. We were able to work on a lot of combinations on lineups and see who kind of connects together. ‘Where do we need to create some more seamless play?’ It was important for development, and by the end of the day, the machine was chugging. The tournament helped us structure practices en route to nationals and we’ve used the past couple weeks to even out those kinks.”
Fortunately, the Belles have good experience in its ranks. Boston has competed in four of the previous five 7s championship, and Markovic, Hannah Mackay, Margaret Reiss, Emma Santosuosso, Paige Stathopoulos and Lisa Van Eerde have returned from the 2019 squad. Stingley and Amanda Schweitzer, a UC Santa Barbara product, are both recognizable Beantown players, and during the WPL season, can be found in the back row together.
“We have a really broad range of experience and skill level,” Stingley said. “Me and Stacey have been around for a long time and participated in a lot of high-level competitions. We have that exposure at nationals under our belts and know what to expect. Some players recently graduated from college, but they’re coming from really high-level programs, so they’re ready to go.”
Harvard is well represented, and the Belles have inherited NCAA varsity-trained athletes in Rachael Harkavy, Jenny Kronish, Gen Quirion and Milan Roberts. Kronish has spent the past year training full-time with the Women’s National Team during its three Daily Training Environment blocks and is part of the Rugby World Cup performance squad. Samantha Menendez is a recent graduate from Boston University, where she served as captain.
“We didn’t even have to talk about it because that’s how competitive everyone is,” Markovic laughed at the notion of having to culture the right mindset. “Practices were getting pretty competitive as is, so it hasn’t come up. It was a given. Other things, like continuity, is what we’ve been trying to improve.”
“We’re just all those kinds of people,” Stingley added. “We show up and put our whole heart into whatever we do. We back each other and there is trust and fire between all of us. We’re there to go for it. All of us are those kinds of individual.”
The Belles are competing in Pool C with National Development Academy ARPTC and stand-alone club Tempe. The top-two teams advance to the Cup quarterfinals on day two, but only after a seeding match in round three of play – a circumstance of a 13-team competition.
“We’re taking it one game at a time,” Markovic said of goals. “We have such a competitive squad and so many skilled players that we’ll have the range for whatever we need in a 7s game, so we can have an awesome competition out there. We want to go as far as we can, but we’re starting with game one. Like the tournament we did play together, we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
As for the future of the Belles, Stingley indicated that the group is trying to set a good foundation first and foremost, and then leave that door open for future consideration.
For more information, visit www.usaclub7s.com.
Lisa Van Eerde