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United’s Stowers: Next Season Starts Today

  • 22 May 2019
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Stowers scoring / Photo: Jackie Finlan

United entered the High School Club National Invitational Tournament (NIT) as the two-time reigning champion and had home-field advantage in Murray, Utah. But this year’s pool play format injected a different cadence and pressure to the tournament, and it caught United in the opening round.

RELATED: Photos: NIT 3rd PlaceFull NIT Results

In the traditional quarterfinal-semifinal-final format of 15s championships, the top-ranked teams (typically) face progressively tougher opponents – especially if they advance to the title match. But this year’s experimental structure created two pools of four, with each team playing three games and standings deciding the placing matches. The first round, however, saw the top four teams play each other: United vs. South Bay in Pool A, and Fallbrook vs. Kahuku in Pool B.

So on the one hand, teams had no time to get progressively better throughout the tournament if a trophy was the goal; but on the other, a first-round loss didn’t necessarily eliminate a team from consideration and kept the pressure on for the subsequent two rounds.

“It was a little bit of both,” United No. 8 Lua Stowers said of the excitement and pressure to perform at home. “We’ve had two years of winning the [NIT], but as they say, it’s harder to stay at the top than it is coming up. So I feel like we did have a target on our backs but that made us more excited. The first game we didn’t play our game so we lost it, but it was a really exciting tournament and the competition was great.”

South Bay took an early lead before United responded with back-to-back tries for a 10-7 second-half lead. A final score from the Spartans, which resulted after a mental error from United, clinched the 14-10 win for South Bay. From that point on, United had to hope that South Bay would lose one of its subsequent pool games in order to have a shot at the title, but the Spartans did not err (read more).

“We always have these little team discussions,” Stowers talked about regrouping after the opening-round loss. “We told each other how much we wanted to win for each other, and how much we wanted to win for our families, and I guess that’s what helped us to switch on our game more and get points on the board and not let anyone score on us as well.”

United shut out Pleasanton 38-0 in round two of pool play.

“People said it looked beautiful from the sideline, and we felt good about our game on the field, too,” Stowers said of the rebound.

In round three, United faced Wasatch, a replay of the Utah state championship in which United won 32-10 the weekend prior.

“In the state final game we didn’t play our game and it was kind of sloppy,” Stowers recalled. “But when we played them again in this tournament we had some redemption because of how well we played together and how well we used our teammates and not just our individual skills.”

United posted another 38-0 win to finish second in the Pool A. On the other side of the bracket, Fallbrook shared in United’s disappointing first-round outcome. The Warriors had been leading Kahuku 7-0 until the very last play of the game, when a penalty provided the Raiders one last chance to get on the board. The Hawaiians came through with a centered try, and that tie meant Pool B’s finalist would come down to point differential. Kahuku advanced to the final.

So United and Fallbrook faced each other in the third place match, both looking to end their tournaments on a high note. The teams last saw each other in the 2017 championship.

“Fallbrook is a really good team. They bring skill and athleticism, and a love for rugby as well,” Stowers said. “Playing them from two years ago to now, you see how much hard work they’ve put in and how much they want to win as well.”

United put in its best performance of the tournament, and frustrated Fallbrook with its quick work of the breakdown. The Utah side ended with a 38-0 win.

“A lot of them impressed me,” Stowers reflected on her teammates’ performances. “Our six, Nafi Fitisemanu, is really good in her role. She plays both forward and back, and knows what to do no matter where she’s playing. She scores tries but she also sets up her teammates to score.

“We would’ve wanted to end it in the championship but a win is a win and we’ll take it,” the junior added. “I guess this is a stepping stone for next year and nationals. We’ll remember the loss we had from the beginning and start from there and build up.”

Stowers has one more year with United and the rising senior indicated that she is indeed looking at rugby colleges. Lua is younger sister to Kat Stowers, who is currently enrolled at BYU but missed the DI spring championship run while on her mission. The target has now shifted to South Bay, and one can bet that United will be eager in the chase.

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HIGH SCHOOL

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