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Ziluca Leads the Redshirts

  • 02 Mar 2019

All photos: Jackie Finlan

Josie Ziluca, Kate Buzby and Abby Fearey were watching a San Diego Legion game from the stands, lamenting the fact that Atlantis wasn’t participating in the Las Vegas Invitational this year. The high schoolers really wanted to compete and looked pleadingly at Ziluca.

“O.K. … I guess I’ll form a team,” said Ziluca, who coached last year’s Atlantis team to LVI glory.

Buzby rallied the troops, Women in Rugby stepped in as a sponsor, and Ziluca turned to her storied heritage for inspiration for a team name and ethos.

“The logo of this horse and rider,” Ziluca pointed to the embroidery on her t-shirt, “this is my great-great-great grandmother [Anita Garibaldi]. Her husband, Giuseppe Garibaldi, united Italy and he led the Redshirts.

“He has a statue in Rome, and they’re all standing stoically and not moving, and it’s overlooking Rome, and beautiful,” the coach continued. “But right down the hill is her statue, and she’s on a rearing horse. She’s got a pistol in the air and holding a baby. She’s a powerful woman and saved him from battle several times. And that’s why we have that [logo].”

The majority of the founding members were familiar with each other, whether it was previous Atlantis tours or age-grade camps. USA Rugby Girls High School All-American Director Martha Daines, who was on hand along with many college scouts, recognized all but three players from the winter camp. Ava Procter out of Oregon and Abbey Savin of Fallbrook came highly recommended and fit into the groove easily. And a few of the younger players who usually play U16 or Open – Talosia “Tako” Morrissette, Nina Mason, Kai Brandt-Templeton – got the call-up.

Buzby and Fearey led the group as captains, and they bred a humble and trusting vibe that connected a diversity of talented athletes.

“My goal was: Every game, we’re going to get better. And it doesn’t matter by how much but we need to get better every game. And they succeeded with that,” Ziluca said.

It was also a challenge, especially considering that the Redshirts began with the Carson Colts, which transitions to South Bay for SoCal’s high school club season.

“We knew they were a physical team and we’ve played them before – the players have, in Utah and here,” Ziluca said. “We kind of assumed they’d have their regular game plan but they changed it up a little bit, but we were able to cover it. That was a pretty good battle.”

The Redshirts won 26-7, then followed with pool play shutouts over West Idaho TOA and Red Hawks United. Meanwhile, the Utah Cannibals posted three shutouts against EIRA, Red Hawks United and Legacy Rugby Academy.

Both teams received byes through the first round of knockouts.

“The team we played in the semifinals, it seemed to me they were a bit gassed,” Ziluca said of Shawnigan Lake. “But they had one of the best 7s styles of play. I thought they were one of the top competitors – maybe just not in the game against us.”

At this point, West End’s Morrissette had established herself as a breakout talent. She stepped into scrumhalf without having any real experience in the position, and played with confidence – attacking the weak side, taking and giving big hits. Nina Mason of Doylestown in Pennsylvania also stepped up her performance in the elite division and impressed coach Ziluca.

“All of the other girls had played in the age grade, All-American level, so they’re used to this and I expect them to have this level of play,” Ziluca said. “But to see some of these younger, unexperienced girls step up and play that same level, it was really cool.”

Buzby, who is towering strength, sustained an injury while scoring a try in the semifinal, taking her out of the trophy match against the Cannibals (which beat Rhinos 35-25 to advance.)

“Some girls are best friends with her and it hit them hard,” Ziluca said of the team’s reaction to losing a captain. “I just told them: Whatever you’re feeling in your heart you’ve got to take that energy and put it on the field and we’ve all got to play for her. She’d want us to focus on the game and that’s what we did.”

But it was Utah that stamped the first half of the championship match, dotting down two tries and conversion for a 12-0 halftime lead. The Cannibals, the Utah state all-stars, are a great mix of hard, strong ballcarriers who can break the line and find support, and lights-out speed. Malia Isaacs is the epitome of that perfect combo.

“In the first half we wanted to be pressuring them on defense, kind of a fire-type defense, and we were successful during that first phase of it. But then Utah’s a great offloading team and we were just ball-watching,” Ziluca recalled the first seven minutes. “And we were sort of going back to simple simple basics, and these girls should be at another level. So at halftime we said we’ve got to lift our heads up and see what’s in front of us. We have to trust each other with the tackle and get in those passing lanes, and just get that ball out wide because we’ve got some good running girls and we have the passes to do it. And it seemed to work.”

The Redshirts also stayed firm in contact, weathering an ultra-physical Cannibals team in contact. The team also got its support to the tackle much quicker, having learned what efficient poachers the Utah side is. But the second-half comeback started to evolve once the team moved the ball into space and let everyone run.

The Redshirts answered with a converted try, and with virtually no time on the clock, dotted down the tying try, 12-all. Alex Wantlin lined up the conversion kick from about five meters off the line, while Ziluca ordered the rest of the team to circle up and just breathe. She gave the same direction to Wantlin, a seasoned kicker who’d been striking well this tournament.

Wantlin took her time and nailed the extras (video courtesy of Jeff Pack). The final whistle sounded: 14-12 to the Redshirts, who leapt into the air like great-great-great grandmothers galloping to the battlefield with infants in hand. The Utah Cannibals were at the other side of the emotional spectrum, heart-broken. But as the teams crossed paths in the aftermath, there was mutual appreciation for the fantastic competition they gave each other, and both teams really conducted themselves with class.

A lot of these players will see each other at Tropical 7s and NAI 7s, although team names might differ. As the Utah Cannibals went to support their Open team at Heritage Park, they expressed an already brewing eagerness for a rematch.

But what about the Redshirts? Was it a one-time outing or will they ride again?

“All the girls were saying, ‘Keep doing it,’ but I always say I’m an Atlantis coach first and foremost,” said Ziluca, who will miss Tropical 7s while preparing for the Touch Rugby World Cup in Malaysia. “But I’d say this might not be the last time you see the Redshirts.”

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