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Walnut Hills 2 for 2 in Ohio

  • 14 Jun 2019
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Every year has been a gain for Walnut Hills. Even when the Cincinnati-based program lost its chance at a Division I Rugby Ohio Championship last year, the outcome produced a hungrier squad that was eager to improve. It’s also been a rewarding experience for U.K.-bound Nick Geary, who has served as head coach since the team’s inception four years ago.

RELATED: State championship photos

Walnut Hills joined Rugby Ohio’s Division II for the 2016 season and often played games with fewer than 15 players. Nevertheless, the team won the state title in its first year and repeated in 2017 before being promoting into Division I. Walnut Hills finished second in DI in 2018, and then took the title on June 3.

“We’ve continuously surprised ourselves. For the first three years we never thought we had the right to win anything,” Geary reflected on the successes. “The first two years we were just supposed to be learning. Our first year in DI we didn’t feel we were good enough to get to the final and then in the semifinals we went against the rankings and beat the number one team. That really shocked the rugby community.

“But if there was ever a turning point, it was losing the DI final last year,” the coach recalled the hefty loss to Hudson. “The girls were overwhelmed by the occasion and let the emotion of the weekend get to them. That happens a lot the first time you get anywhere, but they felt like they let themselves down. They came back this year and set the objective of doing a lot better for themselves.”

The team did graduate many players but a solid 7-8 returned and stepped into crucial leadership positions. Geary coaches DII heavyweights University of Cincinnati during the fall, while Rugby Ohio hosts a fall 7s series for the high schoolers. But Walnut Hills doesn’t ask its players to commit.

“Our fall isn’t about building momentum per se and allows our players to sit back a bit,” Geary explained. “We recruit in inner-city Cincinnati and intentionally set it up to encourage kids who don’t have the opportunity to do sports to play. We have a lot of kids who have to work and their income is key to the whole family. We don’t want to put a lot of pressure on the kids to train throughout the year or participate in the fall, or even come to every practice in the spring. We understand they have a lot going on.”

When the team did assemble, Geary was confident he had a top-five team in the state, and thus expected a berth to the quarterfinals come playoffs. The team started well with big wins over Medina and Parma, and then lined up Brunswick at home.

“That was the big game for the regular season, and they could have easily won it,” Geary said. “The first 20 minutes was all Brunswick. They had 90% possession and scored two tries, but somehow our defense tightened up and wouldn’t let them score again. That was a turning point for this season.”

Walnut Creek banked a lot of confidence in that win, but remained grounded as Brunswick won the rematch, 12-10, at the Midwest Championship.

“Generally speaking we’re really inconsistent in our play. In any one game, there are periods where we’re playing really well and then others when we can’t catch the ball if we tried. It depends on whether they’re mentally switched on,” Geary said. “That’s what we do and have always done. … They have a strong will and inner fight. They always seem to play the best when they’re down.”

Walnut Creek did advance to playoffs, won its quarterfinal against Amherst, and then lined up against Brunswick, for the third time this season, in the semifinals.

“If there’s anyone that the team worries about, it’s Brunswick. They just play a really aggressive game,” Geary said. “They were leading 15-5 at one point and then we chose to stop making mistakes and start playing.”

Walnut Hills got a big performance out of No. 8 Tacoria Mitchell, who served as one of the major leaders all season alongside flyhalf Jayla Twitty, among others.

“Jayla maybe scored the most points in the season. She’s the captain and leads the team with her on-field effort,” Geary said. “In the semifinal, she was the one who was very nervous and maybe didn’t play like her best and the occasion got to her a bit. Tacoria took over some duties – like the fast penalty moves and some leadership things – and helped pull us through.”

The tackling and defense tightened up and then Geary worked the reserves to keep the pace of play at a higher level. Walnut Hills won 37-25 and exploded in celebration. It was back to the final, this time against St. Joseph Academy. Geary described a well drilled, disciplined and well supported opponent.

“St. Joe’s scored first, which is not surprising because we normally start slowly as we get our head right,” said Geary, who recounted a first half riddled with silly mistakes but nonetheless ended 17-12 in his team’s favor. “At halftime I told them that they were dictating the game, for good and bad. Either they were scoring or giving St. Joe’s the try. I asked them: Do you want to give the game away? They went out there and chose well.”

St. Joe’s back line – which Geary deemed the best in the state – deployed an oppressive defense that negated Walnut Hills’ outside attack.

“Our backs usually score most of our tries but in the final they were stifled. So Tacoria, at No. 8, was able to do a lot from the back of the scrum and did more pick-ups than she’d normally do,” Geary said of the graduating senior who scored six tries.

“In general our forwards stepped it up with pod play and really getting to and supporting the rucks,” the coach continued. “Destini McGee, Olivia Griffin and my daughter [Catherine Geary] took on more of the pod play and tackling responsibilities, getting to the rucks, and upped the forward pressure on offense.”

Griffin is a first-year player and played the best game of the season in the final. Her second-best game was in the semifinal, and Geary praised the youngster as she continues to grow while better understands her job.

Walnut Hills scored five second-half tries and held St. Joe’s to one in the 44-19 final.

“I think we deserved it based on the skill we have and the passion the players have. But it was a surprise that we were able to pull it all together during a game where we made our typical number of concentration lapses,” Geary said. “They have a doggedness.”

And if that DI trophy wasn’t the best way for Geary to end his career with Walnut Hills, then having the JV team also win its championship was. The future looks good, especially as Twitty, Mitchell and Divine Moore head to university with scholarships. Finally, Geary let the occasion get to him:

I’m very proud of the team because they come from a massively diverse background and from different parts of the city. They all come together – and it’s not perfect all the time – but they learn from each other. And it’s not all about rugby. Someone who might not study very hard will be in a car with another girl who gets her books out and does her homework. ‘Oh! I never thought about doing that. I should do that.’

Rugby is the vehicle getting these groups of kids together and all of them will be better for the experience. If we win and everyone has a bad experience, then that’s not it. If you lose but come back next year and work together to get better – that’s what it’s all about. Fortunately this team has a positive team spirit and ultimately that’s how we finished up winning. There’s a strong sense of community and they come together in a way that is bigger than the summation of individuals.

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