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Woodlands Redeemed in Texas Title Match

  • 20 May 2021

Photo: Chuck Macune

Woodlands took home top honors in the Rugby Texas Girls’ High School 7s Championship, defeating North Texas 31-7 in the final. It was a redemptive win for those players who featured in the previous title bout in 2019, when the Barbarians stumbled in the teams’ round robin match and then regrouped to win the trophy.

RELATED: Remembering North Texas’ 2019 Title Run

Covid-19 impacted numbers everywhere, and Texas saw some girls’ high schools fold and/or combine. The Woodlands returned all of last year’s sophomores and juniors, (now juniors and seniors), and they formed the core of the team. Also fortunate, Woodlands didn’t have compete for field space. The large organization has a long-standing relationship with its training facility, which is reserved from November-May, same time, same location every year. Practices were delayed until the end of December/early January, and they followed rigorous Covid-19 regulations.

“It was a massive amount of volunteer work to get kids to play,” Woodlands head coach Chelsea Peper said of managing pandemic protocols. “But everyone was really diligent and kept saying, ‘If you feel sick at all, just stay home.’ Even if it ends up being allergies – in Texas, there’s pollen in the air all the time – it was the same message. ‘Don’t show up. Everyone understands.’

“So it was a slow, rocky start,” the coach continued. “Rugby Texas kept saying there wasn’t going to be a season, so we were just practicing.”

But by the end of January, early February, competition dates started to circulate. Peper explained that traditionally there are 4-5 statewide tournaments during the season, and those competitions feed into a seeded championship tournament. This year, the events were more regional to account for travel restrictions – two in Dallas, 1 in Houston, and another in south Houston closer to Alvin. Teams then filled in their schedule with friendlies.

RELATED: Rugby TX Girls HS Commish Paul Graham Surveys League (3/14/21)

Asha Jarusinski / Photo: Chuck Macune

Additionally, some law variations were introduced depending on the age grade and version of the sport being played. For example, boys’ high schoolers playing 15s got one shot to set the scrum to limit close contact. For the girls’ high schoolers playing 7s, there were no scrums or lineouts, and free kicks were awarded when those set pieces would have otherwise taken place.

“But the beginning of April, they removed the Covid protocols for different age groups,” Peper said. “That was interesting because I hadn’t spent any time teaching set pieces because we weren’t doing them this season. So we had to quickly learn to scrum and form lineouts for the last two tournaments.”

Photo: Chuck Macune

Fortunately, Peper had a solid group of players who could weather these changes. Senior Aubrey Crist, who is bound for Davenport University this fall, is the captain, conversion kicker and commensurate leader. She’s well supported by Grace Macune, another influential, athletic leader. They, along with Asha Jarusinski, saw some extra playing time this spring, as they represented Gorilla Rugby at the Tropical 7s (Orlando) in early April.

Maddy Faith is another important player for the Woodlands, and she’ll sample next-level rugby when she travels to the NAI 7s with Rock Rugby Academy. The team also got a boost from Dylan Kipp, one of four seniors this year.

“I’ve known her for years,” Peper said of the future Univ. British Columbia rugby player. “She played for a Houston team that dissolved. She’s a great athlete, a great player, and she fits in perfectly with us. They all know each other. They’ve been playing against each other for years and alongside each other on travel teams.”

Photo: Chuck Macune

It was that chemistry that helped the Woodlands make good gains. Kipp was the only new senior, and Faith Jones was the only sophomore on the squad. Everyone else had been playing together for years. That stability also allowed Peper to experiment with some positional switches.

“We tried a lot of new things this year,” Peper said. “Aubrey was our scrumhalf in 2019 and 2020, and this year we brought up [Faith Jones] to scrumhalf and moved Aubrey to 10. She’s still in that decision-making position, but it puts her in the open a lot more.

“That also freed up Grace, who had been working at 10,” the coach said of the utility player who posted up at center this spring. “She is everywhere. She is the fiercest tackler … and the biggest nuisance on the rugby field. She’s just fantastic on defense.”

Photo: Chuck Macune

Peper indicated that the competition was relatively good, and that a new team, Texas Nuclear Thunder (TNT), was excellent opposition. The team’s out of Conroe, had really good numbers, only two players who had any rugby experience, and finished third overall.

But North Texas was the goal.

“We have some history with North Texas,” Peper said. “We played them in 2019 in a really close championship match, and they scored the winning try in the last minutes of the game. In 2020, we went back and forth [during the regular season], and were always within 2-3 points of each other. This year was no different. We won the first match against them, they won the second, and it was coming down to conversions. It’s always great to get on the field with them, and for my girls, they’re the team to beat.”

Woodlands went to work at last weekend’s championship tournament. The team went 3-0 in pool play, defeating Wyatt (forfeit win), Dallas 45-5 and Katy 45-0. North Texas and TNT were grouped in the same pool, and Woodlands tuned into that match, knowing the winner would advance. North Texas prevailed, and the opportunity for redemption awaited.

Photo: Chuck Macune

“The girls were ready,” Peper said. “They had been preparing for it but North Texas is always a hard competitor and it’s always close. They were excited, but ready to prove a point.”

The team made a statement through its suffocating defense, which was the difference-maker on the day. Peper praised Macune for again setting the tone for pressure and work ethic on defense.

“Asha Jarusinski really stepped up,” Peper added. “She’s our speedster. Fastest on the team. If she gets ball in space it’s very hard to catch her. But she also turned a page this year. I’ve coached her since junior high and she’s also been terrified of contact. She just wanted to run and never wanted to be touched. This year alone she’s turned into the most technically proficient tackler. Just textbook perfect. Between her and Grace, they provided so much solid defense. They were instrumental to the win.”

Photo: Chuck Macune

The team was equally connected on attack.

“Our ball movement was beautiful,” Peper said. “North Texas is notorious for poaching the ball as soon as contact happens. Last week, we worked hard on being at the ruck, being there in support and popping the ball before hitting the ground. We worked diligently countermining their strength by keeping the ball moving and alive.”

Woodlands won the Rugby Texas title 31-7.

“It was some of the best rugby I’ve seen them play,” Peper said. “They all looked so good, it’s hard not to point at one of them and be amazed at how well they played.

“They were all so elated,” the coach said of final-whistle reactions. “Some were crying, especially the seniors and the ones who had played in the 2019 match. There’s a fantastic photo of them jumping into each other’s arms at the end of match.”

Photo: Chuck MaCune

Rugby Texas didn’t name a championship MVP, but the Woodlands’ banquet, Crist was named team MVP.

The Woodlands is hoping to carry this momentum into the rest of 2021.

“This is the first time we’ve done summer 7s,” Peper said. “Usually, my stars or competitive players play with Rock Rugby or EIRA or Gorilla. Aubrey’s played with [Atlantis]. I’m taking the team to Bloodfest in Texas and then we’re going to ARPTC [for Falcon 7s] for the first time as a team. It had to do with the players we have. They all wanted to go these things as a team and not split up on travel teams, because they know how well they compete together.”

Rugby Texas is looking at a possible 7s competition in the fall, but Peper has other ideas.

“I’m trying to create a Woodlands 15s this year,” the coach said of fall plans. “The conversation comes up a lot and it’s based on the numbers of other teams. We have the numbers, and if others combined, they would, too. Problem is everyone’s really spread out.”

The creation and success of TNT has Peper excited about the possibilities, and the coach indicated that the team would look toward Colorado and Oklahoma for 15s opportunities, and then return to Texas for the regular spring season – and reigning champions.

Photo: Chuck Macune

WOODLANDS: Addison Anderson, Kimberlyn Buckwalter, Aubrey Crist, Madison Faith, Asha Jarusinski, Faith Jones, Dylan Kipp, Grace Macune, Marlee Steele, KaLee Thorp and Mercedes Whitney.

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