Photo: Smiles from the Belmont High Girls Rugby, state champions.
Belmont High School Girls’ Head Coach Kate McCabe told her team during the season that “offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”
McCabe’s adage turned out to be spot-on prophetic as the Marauders used a punishing defense to propel its offense to 17 unanswered points as Belmont defeated Algonquin Regional High School, 17-14, to win the inaugural MIAA Girls’ Rugby State Championship on a hot Saturday afternoon at Endicott College, June 10.
After falling behind 14-0 in the first 25 minutes, the Marauders’ used a “no stars” team approach to claw back into the game, sparked by two pivotal plays by a pair of sophomores and the determined leadership of a group of graduated seniors.
“There is not a girl that has been playing with us this entire season that doesn’t deserve credit for what we did out there,” said senior captain Sara Nelson who three years ago was one of the original players who helped started the girls’ program.
“It’s such a team effort, and I love them all,” said Nelson.
“I’m so excited for them,” said McCabe walking off the field with the state championship trophy in her hands.
“They worked so hard; they really wanted it especially the senior class. They made [the state championship] their goal, and I’m just thrilled they got it,” said McCabe, which included Anne Baker, Molly Goldberg, Aisling Madden, Georgia Parsons, Mariel Somers and Nelson.
Not only was the game the first ever state championship for the Girls’ (as well as two divisions of Boys’) it was a historic game as it was the first title game in the US sponsored by a state high school interscholastic association. It is hoped that the championships will spur other state associations to add rugby – the fastest growing high school and college sport in the US – to its list of varsity sports.
Not that Belmont made it easy on themselves to take the championship as the first 25 minutes found the Marauders’ digging a fairly deep hole for themselves as early mistakes and inability to stop the T-Hawks backs resulted in a quick 14-0 deficit. Algonquin’s senior fullback Kendall Scholl found herself turning the corner on Belmont’s defense to score a long distance try only four minutes into the game.
The match-up was following a familiar script of the previous two meetings between the teams – Belmont won 20-10 away and tied the T-Hawks 10-1o at Harris Field – in which Algonquin started out strong scoring the first try.
For nearly the remainder of the half, Belmont had its back to the goal line. After one stellar defensive stance in which the Marauders stopped Algonquin for more than two minutes from within five meters, the T-Hawks pushed Belmont back so its big front line player Charlotte DiGovanni could fall forward with a disputed try as many saw the ball fall out of her hands before it was touched down with 11 minutes to play.
“We did not make it easy on ourselves, that is for sure,” said McCabe. “I think that first half we played a little afraid. We didn’t want to make mistakes, but we made a lot of mistakes.”
With time running down in the half, Algonquin would lose its best all-around player, senior Sam Dickie, to a shoulder injury. Soon after, Belmont would get the break they needed as sophomore fullback Gabriella Viale took the ball from 25 meters out and ran through the T-Hawk line for an uncontested try with no time on referee Kelly Craven’s watch to cut the lead to 14-7 at the half.
“I just saw a gap, and I took it,” said Viale.
McCabe said Belmont needed to take more chances in the final 35 minutes which the Marauders did, stealing a pair of critical scrums and advancing the ball within five meters of the goal 10 minutes into the half but lost possession to an infraction.
But the subsequent kick by Algonquin – a team can advance down the field by kicking it up the pitch and out of bounds – was caught by Belmont’s sophomore right wing Hannah Hlotyak who scampered up the sideline 20 meters. Less than a minute later, senior “8” Georgia Parsons powered through a slew of Algonquin players for Belmont’s second try.
“I told myself that I was going to score try, try to score more than one,” said Parsons, whose ankle was tightly wrapped after injuring it three days before the game. Parson – who was the varsity soccer goalkeeper in the fall – missed the conversion to bring the score to 14-12.
Belmont continued to press Algonquin on both offense and defense as the T-Hawks tired considerably, unable to move the ball effectively against a Marauder defense which each player called out assignments. Many times Algonquin players could only hand off the ball as there was no room to maneuver.
On offense, junior scrum half Jessica Rosenstein – who takes the ball from the scrum and delivers it to the backs – was quarterbacking the offense with spot-on back passes while junior flanker Kailee Pellicane had a series of punishing runs while doing the dirty work of clearing out Algonquin players attempting to steal the ball after a Belmont runner was tackled.
Up front, the forwards, lead by the senior Head Prop duo of Baker and Goldberg supported by sophomore Locks Grace Christensen and Samantha Dignan and flankers; senior Somers and Pellicane dominated the scrums and rucks which left the Algonquin front line exhausted for most of the second half.
With 17 minutes remaining, Belmont moved to its left where they found room to run. Sophomore Amanda Hanley took the ball on a 25-meter romp to inside five meters where junior Rachel Iler-Keniston picked up the ball and dove in for the try. The conversion from the acute angle failed to give Belmont a slim 17-14 lead.
Six minutes later, Algonquin came close to turning the table on Belmont as a quick restart saw a T-Hawk fullback break through an opening into the clear. With only open turf between her and the end zone, it appeared she was going in for a sure tying try when Viale ran her down with a game-saving tackle 15 meters from the goal line.
“I saw the girl break away and I was like, ‘you’re no getting past me,’ and I went for it,” said Viale who competes in winter track.
That would be as close Algonquin would come to scoring as Belmont’s fly backs began picking up large chunks of real estate while substitutes such as Heather Swanson contributed by making a critical steal from an Algonquin ruck.
After the field clock had stopped at two minutes for what seemed to be 10 minutes and with Craven looking at her watch, Rosenstein kicked the ball out of touch after a penalty. It was then the final whistle blew, and after a few seconds of drained relief, the celebration began. Each player received a championship medal, and Nelson accepted the state championship trophy with the coaches. After photos of them with the trophy and banner, the entire team then ran through a “tunnel of honor” created by supporters and several members of the boys’ team who came to cheer the girls.
McCabe said for Belmont, the victory is vindication for the seniors who came out as sophomores to start what was then a fairly unknown sport for girls in the state.
“For girls’ rugby, I hope this starts a trend., I hope more schools have girl rugby teams. I hope we see more really tough games like this. The fans were going crazy. It was a great game of rugby,” she said.
When asked what it was like winning a state championship, “it had not sunk in yet” said Nelson with a beaming smile and tears in her eyes.