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How Granite Bay Became National HS Club Champions

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How Granite Bay Became National HS Club Champions

Granite Bay all smiles. Photo Granite Bay Rugby.

There’s that old saying, be careful what you wish for, but what about the opposite?

Embrace what you dread.

That, sort of, is the story of how Granite Bay won the Boys HS Club National Championship this year. In the 2019-2020 rugby season, Chris Miller returned as coach for Granite Bay. He did it because previous Head Coach Jason Divine had taken a job with Rugby NorCal. The two had coached together for years, and Divine, who led the Grizzlies to a national title in 2016, wanted to make sure the club was in good hands.

The year before had been a tough one on Granite Bay as numbered were low, but the expectation was that they would be able to build back up quickly. The fear was that it wouldn’t happen until partway through the 2020 spring season. And in the crucible that is Northern California rugby, the Grizzlies might have lost a few games by they. Could they hang on and build in such a tough schedule?

Turned out, they didn’t have to. Granite Bay had played but one game when the State of California shut down all sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a disaster for the overall rugby season. For Granite Bay? 

“For our program it was probably the best thing that could have happened,” said Miller. “We weren’t exposed.”

They had some breathing room.

The next thing that allowed Granite Bay to build for the future came in August. That was when Governor Gavin Newsom reinstituted shutdowns throughout the state. This is right in the middle of what had become a heated discussion about shutdowns—were they working, or were they actually hurting? Goff Rugby Report took a stand on this in several varied forms of media commentary, saying that shutdowns were a) ineffective and b) actually hurting.  

In Placer County, which is where Granite Bay is located, they didn’t think much of the State of California’s second shutdown and kept outdoor sports open. While high school sports around the state were shut down, in Placer County, you could at least do something. Miller took action.

“I saw this as a massive opportunity,” said Miller. “We’re an outdoor sport. We can follow COVID guidelines. But we can get kids outside now.”

So they ran clinics and camps through the fall. Athletes who wouldn’t normally have tried rugby came out just for something to do. Several stayed, and Granite Bay’s numbers blossomed.

That put them into 2021, where playing sports in Northern California was still tough. Granite Bay went 4-0 before losing to Danville in a close game and finishing up 4-2 after a loss to Menlo-Atherton. But their JV … their JV went 6-0.

“It wasn’t about winning,” said Miller. “It was much more about development. No one was thinking nationals.”

Granite Bay played all of their games at home because the rules were a little looser there. Fans could come watch, so teams were happy to travel if it meant parents could see their kids play.

But it also provided a chance for Miller to point out to his players that, yes, they were doing pretty well, but they also were playing at home every week and that was a little easier on them.

That benefit helped cover up the fact that the Grizzlies might be athletic and might have built numbers, but their rugby knowledge needed work.

“I told them: ‘you are good athletes; you could start almost anywhere, but to build good rugby players the missing component is rugby IQ,’” explained Miller.

So they spent the offseason watching film and breaking down rugby games. That spilled over into the 2022 season as the team became more and more analytical. And Miller asked the players to take much of that on.

“You need to let them have some ownership,” Miller explained. “It gives them confidence. The kids are great; they are unselfish. We don’t have in-house garbage; we keep our shed clean.”

That’s a reference, of course, to James Kerr’s book Legacy and the habit of the New Zealand All Blacks, star players and newbies, to actually, literally, sweep the shed where they boot up. It’s a lesson in humility and personal responsibility.

The Granite Bay team of 2022 then won most of their games by wide margins. They still tried to test themselves, and did so with a tour of Ireland followed by a very difficult game against Marin right after they returned. They made the Northern California final where, despite missing a couple of injured players, pushed De La Salle close 24-22.

That tight game was hugely important as they entered the national championship.

Tense Moments

In the opening game, the Grizzlies ran into the SOC Raptors. This game was back-and-forth and Granite Bay was in real danger of losing the game. They escaped, and Miller—who had somehow kept his composure during a game where all the team’s expectations looked in jeopardy—calmly spoke to his players.

They’d checked off some boxes in that game. They’d won and would play in the semis; they had suffered no injuries; the performance box? Not so much checked. But they’d fix that the next day.

“We flat could have lost that game, for sure,” said Miller. “But the guys are resilient and we knew we had talent. The guys had worked their tails off and we got through.”

The semifinal, 17-7 over San Diego, was hardly any easier. The Grizzlies were smart, though, and took points when they needed to. 

All through the national tournament Miller had kept out his starting No. 8, Jeremy Harmer. The Grizzlies loose forward had suffered an injury in the game against Marin—a game that was closer than expected and in which Harmer stayed in longer than expected. He was rested after that, not playing against De La Salle, or the Raptors, or the Mustangs.  No complaint from him. It was what was best for the team and he knew it. Harmer stepped in against Belmont Shore as blindside flanker in the final, and was superb.

Saving Best for Last

The night before the final, the coaches sat down with the backs and asked them to raise their game. The Granite Bay forwards had been especially strong throughout the season, but the backs had been hit-and-miss at times. This was not the time to miss, and the backs were challenged to raise the level of their performance. It worked.

In that final, Granite Bay played their best game. A vaunted Belmont Shore attack, one that continually produce startling comebacks, was stymied. Held to only three penalty goals, Belmont Shore was also under constant pressure from a powerful Granite Bay team that had learned one key lesson—when you have an early scoring chance in a championship-level game, take it, and show no mercy.

They did that in the early going against Belmont Shore, with flyhalf Haydn Williams showing a little piece of brilliance with his sidestep and run. They showed it with the power and intensity of John Henry Rouse at prop and Frankie Cusano at No. 8. They did it with a try out of almost nothing from Thomas Koi, who just burst through a few minutes after the Williams try. And they did it right at the beginning of the second half after Belmont Shore had inched to within eight at 17-9. 

From a ruck about 42 meters out—once again in a situation that didn't seem to be all that threatening—the Grizzlies bared their claws. Williams once again slid away from a tackle. He cruised ahead but was ankle tapped. The support, however, was there and as he fell Williams passed to Koi, and that's where the center showed the right team attitude, selflessly committing the last defender, knowing he would get hit, and popping a perfect little pass for Julian Niulala to go in under the posts. No panic, no closing in on themselves ... playing with flare and confidence.


Granite Bay Grizzlies 1st-team results:
Feb. 19: Tempe 26-31 Granite Bay
Feb. 26: Lamorinda 10-67 Granite Bay
March 5: SFGG 21-40 Granite Bay
March 12: Granite Bay 38-10 Danville
March 19: Granite Bay 64-24 Mother Lode
March 25: Granite Bay 33-17 Jesuit Sacramento
April 2: East Palo Alto 7-67 Granite Bay
Mid-April: Tour to Ireland
April 23: Granite Bay 31-12 Marin
April 30: Granite Bay 64-11 Mother Lode
May 7: Granite Bay 22-24 De La Salle
May 18: Granite Bay 20-17 SOC Raptors
May 19: Granite Bay 17-7 San Diego Mustangs
May 20: Granite Bay 29-9 Belmont Shore

Interesting note: Every single US team Granite Bay played was ranked at the time they played except Lamorinda, who was nevertheless ranked during the season. Of their 13 games, 11 were against opponents that are ranked at the end of the season, with the average ranking of 13.7.

In the end, the simple act of opening up a skills camp during a time when athletes had little to do jump-started Granite Bay’s rebuild. With those numbers, Miller was able to stand firm on his plan to ensure there was no drama, and a good team ethos. Players who wouldn’t fit in with that approach might leave, but the team would still have depth.

That team ethos manifested itself in a common purpose to improve right when things were going badly at the national tournament.

Now, with only seven seniors on their squad, they are looking at a solid 2023 as well—all because they embraced the difficult moments.