Valley Panthers improved to 6-0 after Saturday’s win against Cleveland. /// Photo: Daniel Johnson
While Beaverton and Grant have played out their rivalry in the previous two Oregon state championships, a third team has been gaining ground on the leaders. Jeremy Moore started coaching the Valley Panthers in 2014 and inherited a team that had finished second-to-last in the 2013 league. From there, a continual, mutual commitment between the coach and players has seen the team improve in the standings each year, and now the Valley Panthers are the unequivocal leaders in Oregon’s varsity division.
After last fall’s 7s season, where the McMinnville-based team finished second, the players told coach Moore that they wanted more rugby. So the team started fundraising for a bulky pre-season, which began with January’s Sacramento Kickoff Tournament.
“We had an extremely successful tournament,” Moore said of wins against nationals-bound Land Park and Bishop O’Dowd, both of which competed in the NorCal Plate championship. “We fell nine points short of Pleasanton, but they were our first game and we got off to a slow start. Coming off a 12-hour drive, there was some jet lag. I would’ve loved a second half against them. I know we would’ve come out on top.
“The team came home on a hot streak,” the coach explained the vibe as the team prepared for Prez Fest, where it beat Beaverton and North Clackamas. “We couldn’t get around Kent. They’re our kryptonite.”
Then it was time for the Oregon pre-season tournament and Moore deliberately scheduled Grant as the first game of the day. The Valley Panthers beat the Generals 15-10.
“That was uplifting for us,” Moore confessed.
A trip to Washington’s Spring Fling saw wins against Rainier, Liberty and Budd Bay, and another loss to Kent – 22-minute games all in one day.
No one has come close to the Panthers during league. Rugby Oregon has a mercy rule in terms of score reporting, so the online record shows several 35-point wins; however, the Valley Panthers haven’t scored fewer than 55 points in any league game. Including tournament games, the team is 17-3.
This year’s team is senior heavy and Moore is mindful of the 8-9 graduates he expects to lose for next year. In Saturday’s game against Cleveland, he told the seniors to play at 50% and let the underclassmen fill the void. The team won 50-6.
The experience is concentrated in the forwards. Power prop Samantha Arciga and hooker Sam Hughes – Moore’s choice for the best #2 in the state – didn’t play in yesterday’s win and their absence was felt. Hughes is so good on the strike, and without her, Cleveland was able to steal possession in the set piece. The Ross twins are also important. Flanker Jordan, aka “Boxer,” has a fantastic work rate and gets around the field well. Shanay is a lock and literally holds the tight five together in the scrum.
Fortunately, senior scrumhalf Samantha Barker links the veteran pack with a younger back line. She boasts the most experience, playing all four years including fall and summer 7s seasons, and has three years with the state all-star program. Her personal drive is inspirational and she’s looking to be the Red Hawks’ starting scrumhalf this year.
She connects with the very talented Legacy Adams at flyhalf. Although the captainship shifts from game to game, when it’s go time, these two run the show. Paired with junior inside center Adriana Mendoza, there is a special unit in the middle of the pitch.
“A lot of forethought goes into her play,” Moore said of Mendoza. “The way that our 9-10-12 play together, it leaves the door open for freshmen outside center Jazmin Hager and the wing to score a bunch of tries.”
The team’s style of play resembles that of Grant and Beaverton, and that’s no accident. Moore got involved with the Red Hawks early on his coaching career, and soaked up everything he could. He befriended Greg Tracy, Beaverton head coach, and the pair to this day stay in contact and discuss strategies. The Valley Panthers are slightly outsized by the club leaders, but they compensate with a lot of conditioning that includes rugby-themed Crossfit.
Should the Valley Panthers win the varsity championship (Moore is confident that they’ll play Reynolds for the title), then the team will play the club champion on Friday, June 3 for the Cup Championship, as it’s been dubbed.
“The level of competition has me a little worried,” Moore said. “I don’t want to take anything away from the other teams in our league, but we haven’t been pushed to our full potential.
“The girls really want it, for their own peace of mind,” the coach said of the hopeful berth to the Cup Championship. “It was a huge ego boost when we beat them in pre-season. When I first started, the girls always talked about Grant and Beaverton, and how they always crushed us. Now, we can walk on the pitch, look at them eye to eye, and know we can hold our own. They’re proud of what they’ve accomplished so far.”