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The Cardinal Way to a Unique Championship

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The Cardinal Way to a Unique Championship

Charlotte Cardinals ride their defense to a championship. Alex Goff photo.

The question popped up Saturday night; a question we hadn't pondered at all until then—were the Charlotte Cardinals the first East Coast team to win the HS Club Championships?

Let's have a look. As you can see here>> the HS Championships was, from 1981-2007 to be one tournament. There was no division between HS Clubs and Single-School teams. Over that period, five Single-School teams won championships, and the other 22 (mostly Highland out of Utah) won 17. The regional split is as follows:

Utah 20 Championships, California 7, New York 2.

When the championship was then split into Single-School and HS Club, Highland continued its rein for a while. 

From 2008-2013 USA Rugby ran a split tournament, and then when they backed away and it was taken over by a team of coaches headed up by the late Lee Kelly, a Tier II was added.

Here's how those championships break down:

California 7
DC 6
New York 1
Utah 1
Ohio 1

Tier II
California 5
New Jersey 1
Virginia 1
Kansas 1
Idaho 1

HS Club
California 6
Utah 5
Indiana 4
North Carolina 1

So you see California and Utah have had many champions—mostly Jesuit Sacramento on the school side for California and Highland on the club side for Utah. But Californian clubs have come from all over. California HS Clubs won five straight HS Club titles from 2018-2023 (no tournament in 2020), with five different teams.

And yes, while there have been Single-School champions from the East Coast (Xavier) and in Tier II (West End, Union) there has never been a HS Club champion from the East Coast until the Charlotte Cardinals won on Saturday. The closest anyone came was Fort Hunt in 2017 and Charlotte Tigers in 2021.

And what a run it was for Charlotte. They arrived with an impressive offensive resume but really it was their defense that saw them through. Put under not insignificant pressure the Cardinals held Okapi to one try, San Diego to two, and, in the final, The Woodlands to one. Over the course of the three days they gave up 30 points, the least allowed of any team in any of the breaks. In fact, the only teams that were remotely close to that astonishing points-allowed figure were Wolverines (46), The Woodlands (41), and Gonzaga (40).

Points allowed by teams not named Charlotte Cardinals were 27.4 per game; points allowed per game by the Charlotte Cardinals was 10.0.

So how did they accomplish that?

First off, there's a not to Zach and Max Coulson. The flyhalf and fullback, and brothers, were really strong fielding kicks and putting distance on any clearance kicks they made. They were not going to make it a short field for you. Next up, captain and MVP of the final, Finlay Mitchell, ran his team extremely well. He had their ear and they organized quickly. After the game the players also pointed out their fitness. They possibly were the fittest team in Elkhart. If not, they were top three at worst. They made their tackles, got off the ground, and got into position quickly and efficiently.

Then there are the guys who just dedicate themselves to playing defense. The back row of Sean Butler, Kai Campbell, and Nate Rawls put defense at the top of their list of jobs to do. But it was everyone—everyone worked hard on defense. If a tackle was missed, and Woodlands makes you miss, someone else was coming in to help.

For their part, The Woodlands lost their flyhalf, Ilen Menon, and their fullback, Tate Standridge, within the first 10 minutes or so. They did a really good job of not letting it get under their skin, but it had to have an effect. This is the game where you expect your starting 15 to be ready to go, and in the end they couldn't.

And finally, Charlotte didn't panic. After going out to a 10-0 lead they saw The Woodlands find their feet and find the tryline to tie it up 10-10, and even take the lead at 13-10. 

Late in the second half Charlotte for a scrum just outside the Woodlands 22. Rawls picked up from the base and made some ground before the ball was recycled and sent on to wing Luke Zhemke. Two more runs and then from the base of the next ruck Max Coulson stepped into the scrumhalf spot and dummied before cutting into the gap he'd just created. A little shimmy and a pass floated for scrumhalf Will Kuebler—who had been excellent all weekend—and he was able to stretch over. Conversion good and it was now a 17-13 lead.

All this, by the way, with Zach Coulson in the sin-bin for a dangerous clearout.

The Woodlands responded with a big run down the sideline, and when Charlotte loose forward Jacko Ah Hoy was sin-binned for a dump tackle, Now down to 13 players, Charlotte were in serious trouble. With time winding down, The Woodlands only needed a try to take the lead. And they were knocking on the door. This is where Charlotte's defense came into play. They knew they were outnumbered, so they made sure they bumped out well and then came up quickly when The Woodlands looked to test them wide. The result was a rather slow pass to Zane Smith. He was hit by Mitchell as he grabbed the ball and the ball came loose. 

Center Jacob Schumacher, up level with Mitchell, scooped up the ball, fended off someone (who turned out to be his teammate!), and took off. Woodlands wing Brock Jeter did all he could and managed to drag Schumacher down before he scored, but Zhemke was right there to take the offload and go in under the posts. 

A superb breakaway try, but one made possible by defense and conditioning, and dedication to the unglamorous stuff. Schumacher had also pounced on another loose ball to prevent a try; the Cardinals just had that mentality.

The Rest of the Tournament

Spare a thought for The Woodlands, a team that played some excellent rugby and were done no favors by the injury gods.

Spare a thought also for Belmont Shore, who finished 3rd a year after winning it all. They lost just the one game, a 22-17 nailbiter to The Woodlands, and can look back on the last 12 months and one week with plenty of pride.

The chatter around the tournament was mostly about the hard-luck team Layton Christian, which had come to the 2024 Championship with a renewed purpose and perhaps a better understanding of how hard it all is. They had lost all three games last year by a total of five points. They started this year with an overtime loss to Belmont Shore. But after a victory over Eastside in which they won but felt they hadn't played their best, they stormed on to take 5th over Okapi. It was a fitting end to a team that had paid its dues.

Eastside finished winless after losing some key players to injury early, but it's worth pointing out that they were in every game they played. Even their 22-0 loss to The Woodlands was 8-0 well into the second half. They were pipped for 7th by Pendleton, a very, very good club team that lost their first two matches by two and three points, respectively. Overall, seven of the 12 HS Club Championship matches ended within a try, and while the final didn't fit that criteria, the last try of the game came at full time. We said at the beginning that this was a tournament almost anyone could win. That remains the case; everything was close, and the team with the biggest commitment to defending their tryline came away with the Lee Kelly Trophy.