No rest for the defending state rugby champs
January 25, 2016
Rugby at Summit High School is not your typical sport.
As a club sport, not a varsity sport, the team has freedom to play two seasons (fall and spring) every year. After the fall season is over, the team has a faithful core that keeps playing during the winter and spring while juggling full-time winter and other spring sports. This kind of commitment is rare in an age of single-sport athletes and fueled by unheralded passion for the game.
This is especially true with the Summit crew. What's even more rare: the kind of domination that the Tigers display on the field.
This past fall, the Tigers won the 2015 Colorado Girl's 15s Rugby State Championship with a 64-7 drubbing over Chapparal. It was nothing new for the Summit girls, as it was their eighth consecutive state title.
It would seem that dedication might wane after eight straight titles, but the Tigers devoted approach to the sport says otherwise.
To the next level
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Shortly after the Tigers most recent state championship, USA Rugby sent invitations for its High School All-American rugby pool. A whopping eight Summit players received invites for the western region camp in Arizona — more than any other high school represented. The top performers from this camp will be selected for the USA All-American team.
"They're really prepping us for going up to higher levels with the U.S. team, so they teach us a lot about how they like us to play, like their structure," junior Natalie Gray said.
Whether an individual makes the team or not, getting to play against top-tier talent pays dividends. Sophomore Cassidy Bargell was also invited to the All-American camp. She is an important piece of the strong youth core on the Summit rugby team. As a freshman, she was already getting scouted by college recruiters and will undoubtedly bring valuable experience from her time at the prestigious camp to the tough spring stretch coming up.
"You get to meet and see in Arizona a lot of the people you're playing against," she said.
This spring, Summit Rugby will play in an elite sevens tournament in Las Vegas and the U.S. High School 15s Championship in St. Louis, Missouri.
Summit will have their work cut out for them, as these tournaments feature predominantly all-star teams from rugby-rich areas like British Columbia and the East Coast. The sevens tournament will be particularly challenging because Summit won't be able to rely on their modus operandi — speed — nearly as much. In the fall, Summit played 15's, which allowed for more spreading out over the field.
"When we play sevens all the girls are fast," Bargell said. "There's not really girls that are slow, so you have to be able to be like a strong defender and be fast."
Head coach Karl Barth agrees.
"The speed thing will be a lot more neutralized in Vegas," he said. "At the same time you have to be able to adapt … You run into a bigger, faster team (and) you have to be faster or change it up a ways."
An unusual dedication
Even though outdoor pitches are covered in snow much of winter, the passion to play runs too deep with the Tigers to let that be a hurdle. Long before the first school bell has dinged — and even before many of their fellow students have awoken — Summit rugby players can be found in the weight room working out. As the sound of clanging weights and laughter fills the room, the team prepares three times a week for the upcoming spring season, with skill sessions and individual strength training.
"You're coming in with 10 to 20 girls who want to work hard. It's very different," Barth said. "You have such a range in practice … but when you get in there, sort of that elite training group is much more motivated."
These practices aren't for the slouch: They start bright and early at 6:15 a.m.
"I like when you work and you can see results," Bargell said. "You notice how much it's helping you and your performance … that's why I like coming."
Gray, who attends most of the early-morning workouts, also plays on the basketball team in winter. She has many days where she'll train for rugby in the morning and then go to basketball practice after school. It sounds like a lot, though for her and many others, it's merely another chance to hang out with her rugby girls.
"It's a lot of fun," she said. "It's like the highlight of my day."
A bond breeds success
The Tigers have plenty of experience at out-of-state tournaments. Last summer, the team finished fifth at the Penn Mutual Rugby Championships. But the Tigers weren't quite satisfied.
"In Penn, we didn't play how we can play, and I think putting it behind us is the best way we can do it," Gray said and paused, "But not completely, because we can't let it happen again."
The team learned from this lesson and bounced back quickly, winning an elite tournament in Utah last fall.
"In a way, Utah helped build confidence in ourselves and teach us to do the best for us and do what we can do and play how we can play," she said.
Bargell is excited to carry on a tradition of success and, of course, championship wins.
"Last year, when I was a freshman and I was playing with the seniors, they taught me so much, and they taught me why they love it, and it made me want to work harder for them," she said. "I just want it the same thing for the younger girls."
One frigid morning workout at a time, the Tigers will teach just that. The only question remaining is whether these All-Americans can teach the rest of the team how to compete with some of the best in the nation.
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