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West End Mobilizes During Lean Year

  • 11 Jun 2019
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West End has long fielded great numbers – one of several key attributes to a club’s stability and longevity. But graduating 24 players in two years, paired with a coaching change, brought on an adjustment period, and the Ruckettes were barely able to field a 15s side this year. With that said, there’s little sense of despair within the ranks, as West End repeated as state 15s champion and is already plotting toward bigger, near-future goals.

RELATED: 2019 Women’s Rugby CalendarRugby VA State Championship Photos

Sarah Emory stepped into the head coaching role after serving as assistant alongside Jim Adase and Phil Parks the previous two years. The trio worked under former head coach Matt Estes, who moved on to coach George Mason University, and has good chemistry. Emory emphasized that everyone has rallied around recruitment during the off-season, especially considering that just 16 players drove the spring season.

Emory indicated that both the local league and Rugby Virginia commissioners referenced a 25% decrease in participation across the board. For West End, that deficit was a shock, and the ripple effects radiated in all directions.

“Only three of our players were seniors, so we have a really young group that got a ton of experience this year, which is great for the future of the program,” Emory said.

Senior captains Abby Harris (George Mason / Air Force ROTC) and Hannah Smith (Penn State), as well as fellow senior Lindsey Thorne (NOVA) were the consummate leaders, while the sophomore class formed the crux of the squad. Influential players like Elly Gorham, Alaina Gibson, Emma Riney and Gracie Lowry have been playing together since middle school and raise the level of play around them.

“But it was jarring in a way,” Emory considered the early-season struggles. “Not demoralizing, but it’s hard to get amped up at practices sometimes especially if all16 girls are not there. They realized it’s hard to do some things as a team [with low numbers]. But on the field during game time, they were very committed to each other. If someone got a bump or a bruise, they did not want to come off because the last thing they wanted to do was leave the team short-handed.”

West End didn’t have much of a 7s season in the fall and got a real first look at its team during the Carolinas Ruggerfest in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this year. The Ruckettes won that competition handily and with 14 players, and then took on tough competition at D.C. Ruggerfest and against Maryland state champion North Bay.

“Our team likes to be on the road and traveling together,” Emory said of competition outside of the state. “But we have to carefully choose which tournaments we go and support. Because when we were winning by such large margins in North Carolina, we had to break some bad habits we developed down there, because things got easy and the importance of defense, for example, had to be re-emphasized.”

Four teams competed in the Rugby Virginia high school 15s matrix season. Several clubs combined to form the “Family Rugby Club,” and its members can be found CIPP-registered with Prince William, Vienna, Richmond and Loudoun teams. Otherwise, TC Williams (35) and Fort Hunt (32) have the largest rosters in the state, while Fairfax Police, Newport News, Western Loudoun and Winchester all list zero members on their respective CIPP rosters.

West End got its best competition from Family and won the teams’ regular-season match by just two points – thanks to Gorham’s always influential boot. As the season progressed, younger players like Grace Gossett grew in prominence and established herself as an up-and-comer to watch. Kayla Ghodsi, one of four rising seniors, also reiterated her role as an exciting difference-maker on the pitch.

Fittingly the state championship pit West End against Family, and the teams did not disappoint as they played to a 12-12 halftime tie.

[Coincidentally, that was also the halftime score of the USA Rugby DI Club National Championship the following weekend. West End alumna Liz Wilson played strongside flanker for title-winning NOVA and earned praised from championship MVP Bri Kim (read more).]

As the brutal heat exerted itself and West End took a couple of injuries, the Ruckettes still managed to pull away in the second half. The three seniors – Harris, Thorne, Smith – scored tries, as did championship MVP Ghodsi, who dotted down twice. Gorham converted all four tries and her two penalty kicks kept the scoreboard ticking over and the momentum in motion.

“The state title showed everyone that although we’re going through a transition, if you will, with smaller numbers on the roster, our future is bright,” Emory said. “The kids built a ton of confidence in themselves this season. They’re already talking about next year and their ultimate goals, which is promising. I think we have the parental commitment to support those ambitions, because they saw a fire that lit in their kids and want to maintain it.”

Last weekend, the entire West End program – boys and girls, pre-K through high school – held its end-of-season picnic and alumni game. Senior Harris was named Best Forward, sophomore Gorham is Best Back, and junior Ghodsi was named MVP.

The season now moves into all-star and summer 7s play. Rugby Virginia is sending an all-star team to the Northeast Regional Cup Tournament (RCT) in Massachusetts, a major talent identification venue for USA Rugby age-grade selectors and collegiate scouts. There are also opportunities with select side 7s teams this summer. And while those experiences are important, the team knows that energy will be focused on recruitment.

“They want to build that depth so they can travel and play higher-level competition. And they know that better numbers means if they need time to come out [of the game] and rehab, then that’s O.K.,” Emory said. “Playing that higher level of competition more frequently will raise their level and then they hope to have the opportunity to earn an invite back to NITs.”

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