Team culture leads Summit girls rugby to 14th state championship
Long before the Summit High School girl’s rugby team was huddled together at the center of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s rugby pitch, hoisting up the program’s 14th consecutive state championship trophy, the program worked to build a strong team culture.
The foundation of the team culture has been building for years, but this year’s standard was set in the early summer at practices and continued into the beginning of the 2021 fall season, when state championship No. 14 could barely be seen on the horizon.
Seniors Jenna Sheldon and Elizabeth Darst have been a fixture on the varsity rugby team this past season.
Sheldon, who has played on varsity as a center and prop since she was a freshman, has now earned her fourth state championship after beating Monarch High School 33-0 on Saturday, Oct. 30.
Sheldon played a significant role in the state championship match, creating opportunities, providing physicality and passing the ball to her teammates, some of which she was playing with for the last time.
Sheldon helped junior Paola Arredondo to execute on three tries, scoring 15 out of the 33 points for the Tigers. Seniors Olyvia Snyder and Darst scored on tries of their own for 3 points each. The rest of the Tigers points came from four successful conversions from junior Jocelyn Roque.
The state championship performance was a team effort, and those who didn’t score points were instrumental in stopping the Monarch Coyotes from scoring. The Tigers defense made sure that the Coyotes didn’t find their way past their wall of intense, physical defense and kept them scratching their heads on how they could execute.
Sheldon, who is also a captain of the team, was one of the leaders on and off the pitch for the Tigers who helped to foster the team culture that has made the Summit girls rugby team so successful over the past four years.
“To me, team bonding is one of the most important things to really make sure you do as a team,” Sheldon said. “If I am passing the ball, I want to know I am passing it to someone I know will catch the ball.”
The Tigers would bond over a team meal at Sheldon’s house every Thursday night during the season. This allowed the girls to not only grow closer as a team but also to talk over rugby strategy that is instrumental in winning games.
Team bonding also occurred in the first 15 to 20 minutes of every practice, when Coach Karl Barth set aside time for older players to invest in younger players and help them work on their rugby skills.
“Team culture is a huge part of rugby and why I love the sport so much,” Darst said. “I know the ladies on the field are going to be there for me on and off the field. Other sports teams don’t get as close as we are, and I think that is in large part because of the work our coaches do.”
Even though the team comprises 65 girls, Sheldon and Darst said they feel close to every single one of them.
“I absolutely feel close to every girl on the team,” Sheldon said. “Another large part of that is because of the team trip we take to Utah every year, which is so special. The eight-hour, sometimes longer, bus ride with the same girls is amazing. The investment time at the beginning of practice also helps bring the team closer together.”
Sheldon and Darst expressed that the focus of the season was not another state championship but rather being the best team they could possibly be. By striving to be the best, the Tigers ultimately found their way to another state championship match that ended with the team celebrating another state title.
“I told them prior to the game to just go out and enjoy the whole day and game,” Barth said. “It was the last chance they were going to play together as that team, and they love playing together and playing with each other — so just enjoy the game. I also told them some stuff about playing with intensity.”
For the seniors on the team, the state championship match was an emotional one.
“It is hard to think that I am going to be moving on and that my teammates will no longer physically be in my corner every day as they have been the last four years,” Sheldon said.
For Darst, one of her favorite memories of the past four years on the team came from the state championship game. Darst said the team took to the pitch with the idea of playing the best rugby the team had ever played.
“It was the most fun I have ever had playing rugby,” Darst said. “We were playing so cohesively. The energy on the field was crazy, and I trusted everyone out there.”
Unlike Sheldon, Darst has not played all four years on the varsity green team. Darst played junior varsity for two years before playing on the gold team her junior year and the championship green team her senior season.
Darst said she was amazed that the culture was the same throughout the three teams. Even the addition of new team members each year does not affect the team-first culture that has been established by the Tigers.
“I was once a super nervous freshman, and I instantly felt like I belonged because the upperclassmen always included us,” Darst said. “It’s cool to think I did the same thing for underclassmen this year.”
Seven Tigers will get the opportunity to play rugby with one another at least one more time this weekend at the Colorado All-Star rugby game Saturday, Nov. 6, at Infinity Park in Denver.
Three of the seven will be seniors: Sheldon, Snyder and Millie Carleton. The three will lace up their spikes, put their mouthpieces in and relish in the opportunity of being able to play side by side one last time as part of the now 14-consecutive state championship Summit Tigers girls rugby team.
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