The Championship Journey of the Belmont Shore Family
The Championship Journey of the Belmont Shore Family
Word came down from various opposing coaches early this season—2022 national cub runner-up Belmont Shore wasn't just good, they were better than laster year.
From the opening week of play that seemed to be true. Belmont Shore brought back several returning players, but also reloaded with a pile of talent and, to a certain extend, a different look.
"Although we never underestimate any team in our SoCal League and Nationals, we were confident with the players we selected in our First XV," said Head Coach Johnny Pua. "After playing great clubs like OC Raptors, Thunder, and especially Mustangs, it definitely brought the best out of our team and helped prepare us for Nationals which also gave us a good indication that we could have a solid chance at winning. Not to forget playing the Northern Cal teams like Danville Oaks at the UCLA tournament as well."
That may have been the first indication. In the rain a the Dennis Storer Classic, conditions that weren't expected to favor Shore, the Long Beach side beat Olympus, Marin, and, notably, Danville to go 3-0.
That good start and an undefeated run through the SoCal club season certainly kept us all on notice.
"We had complete buy-in since the loss in the [national] championship match vs Granite Bay 2022," said Pua. "The boys never let that go and kept the fire burning leading into 2023 Season. The mindset and theme we used came from the motivational speaker Eric Thomas: 'Winners Win, Losers Lose.' The boys understood that it wasn’t cocky but it was the mindset that you need to accomplish anything in life, on the field and off. You want it, go win it."
Granite Bay took control of tha 2022 final, mostly by scoring tries when they had scoring chances while Belmont Shore had to settle for penalty goals. That stuck with the players and they took that lesson.
"We hit the conditioning hard, sharpening our strengths: ball continuity, keeping the ball alive, and playing what’s in front of you but still playing the system," said Pua.
Keeping It Loose
That's not say it was all business. The Belmont Shore boys instilled a sense of fun ino their preparation as well.
"I had to find what makes these boys tick, what’s their happy place—not too serious and not too relaxed," said Pua. So he looked at some of the things that work in other sports, like football. And in football, music is often incorporated into training.
"The senior boys and coaches decided that using the music element during warmups helped the boys relax," said Pua. "It was not just any specific type of music but a variety of fun, upbeat music that reminded them of what they listened to with their parents. It connected them with their families."
This was especially true during the National Championship weekend when the players were so far from home. You could see it during warmups, as players would often break into dance during warmups.
You could see it in the jocular way they went about their business. Like with this interview.
Combine that with Coach Chris Babecky telling his dry Dad jokes before the game and the team chant, it all balanced being loose and relaxed with being switched on.
"The chant before the game gets them really amped up and it was time to switch on ready for battle," said Pua. "Ultimately it all works, and they play their best when they have fun."
That all was part of the mix during preparation. Belmont Shore rained three days a week from February onward. Black Tuesdays would be their hardest day, demanding the most out of the players. Wednesday was Speed Wednesday, working to play fast and execute on tight margins. Thursdays were Touch-the-Ball Thursdays, emphasizing keeping the ball alive and getting everyone involved.
The New Look
Belmont Shore in 2022 was fast but not necessarily overpowering. One of the things the 2022 team needed was a better speed-power mix. Could their fast guys be more powerful? Could their big guys be more shifty?
"Having size and depth in our forwards really helped, but our approach as coaches was to make sure our forwards were conditioned so that we could have the best of both worlds, having a big and mobile pack," said Pua. "Obviously the Tongan Tank [Max Amasio] but also players like the brothers Phoenix Tusa at prop and Milo Tusa at eightman were also driving forces in our pack on both sides of the ball."
This players, with captain and hooker Nathan Vargas leading the way, maintained their work rate throughout the games, a result of those Black Tuesday conditioning sessions.
Certainly against San Diego in the national final, the power of that group of forwards was evident, and Amasio was the game MVP.
There is talent all over the field, however. Flyhalf Lenny Ibarra was brilliant in Elkhart, and wing Ryan Curtis added an extra dimension with his excellent kick both for points and from the hand. With Jasiah Lolesia-Pua countering nicely on kicks from fullback and his brother Elijah, the backs captain, keeping it all together, Belmont Shore could run you into the ground or pound you into the ground—your choice.
Belmont Shore Rugby Club fields teams from the very youngest all the way through the ranks. Pua returned from coaching this National Championship side to work on preparation for the National Youth 7s, which kicks off this coming weekend. It's not a case of one group is more important than the other.
Again, another interview shows that ... this time it's the captains from all of the Belmont Shore teams at the NAI 7s in 2022.
"One of the most important factors of our club is the family aspect," said Pua. "No matter what tournament we participate in together we try to go support each other's teams, showing solidarity and love for each other. It is truly a Family. What also helps is majority of our coaches are alumni who played together back in the day, so it was easy to trust that each coach knew how to keep that tradition alive.
That tradition has has another jewel to show off now; Belmont Shore, National HS Club Champions.