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How Panther Rugby Academy Repeated at National Youth Sevens

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How Panther Rugby Academy Repeated at National Youth Sevens

PRA in action at the National Youth 7s. Photo Greg Miranda.

Repeating in any age grade tournament is never easy and this year's National Youth 7s Championship was no exception.

Panther Rugby returned to National Youth 7s Rugby Championships with their winning coaching combination of Gary Anderson and David Katz and were also fortunate enough to have three players from their 2023 Championship side return—Jake Orefice, Elijah Pimental, and Andrew Ryan. But that wasn't a guarantee of much. 

Having only three returning players combined with other potential returners sidelined due to injury or prior commitments, this was going to be a new team. This situation required some last-minute recruiting, an effort spearheaded by Anderson, who scouted the recent USA HS Nationals in Elkhart, Ind. looking for talent to complement the returning players and fill up the depleted side.

He secured the final two roster spots with Wolverines Rugby talent Sosia Hokafanu and Andrew Taich from Mustang Rugby. With these two additions, Panther Rugby Academy took a talented group of 13 athletes to North Canton, Ohio. On paper, this was a solid team, with players representing six states and multiple clubs from California to Florida, however, the team needed buy-in to the coaching and the system in short order.

With the tournament shortened from three days to two, sessions were limited and building team chemistry more difficult. Anderson and Katz got straight down to business with a team session on Wednesday evening and three training sessions on Thursday. Flight delays and longer drive times due to adverse weather around the country affected the initial planning, with several of the boys working on very little sleep. Nonetheless, all the players bought straight into what the coaching staff was trying to do.

Day One

The tournament started with a solid win over Badger Rugby, allowing the boys to build chemistry and find their footing. The match started slowly for both teams. Flyhalf Jake Orefice scored the first try of the match at the two minute mark, which seemed to settle the team before Elijah Pimental added a second try on an interception, making the score 14-0.

PRA kept the momentum in the second half with tries in quick succession from Bryson Cook and Andrew Ryan. Captain Trace Snellman was 3-for-4 on conversions making the final 26-0.

Although PRA pitched a shutout, Anderson fine-tuned the defense ahead of what would be a tough second match versus a strong LA Tribe side. The match did not disappoint with both sides showing strong team speed and tackling. PRA defense was led by Drew Taich and Hoakfanu, who both seemed to be everywhere, making big tackles on the edges. They held the potent Tribe offense scoreless in the first half and PRA took a 5-0 lead into halftime thanks to a strong Andrew Ryan run. The second half proved more of the same with a strong defense before an intercept try by Hokafanu seemed to take the wind out of the Tribe. Wyatt Appleton iced the game, scoring on a superb individual effort. Snellman was 2-for-3 on conversions finished it off at 19-0.

Having already secured the top spot in the pool, PRA used the final match versus Pasefika to rest some starters and find impact players for the knockout round. The match started slowly before Woodlands speedster Magnus Herndon took the ball in from 50 meters at the two-minute mark in the first half. Pasefika struck right back to end the half to make the score 7-5 Panthers.

Elijah Pimental opened the second half with a strong run right up the gut to make it a 14-5 Panther lead. But Pasefika would not go away and scored on a long run to come within two points again at 14-12. Then with an impressive individual effort Hokafanu took the ball from one end of the pitch to the other making the score 21-12. Pasefika socred late but thanks to Snellman being perforect on conversions, PRA held on 21-19.

Day Two

The second day of competition started strong with PRA's stingy defense going against the top scoring team in the tournament, Atlantis. PRA was off to a quick start when Pimental scored from halfway on a brilliant give-and-go from Hokafanu. The same pair connected just a minute later with Pimental getting his second of the match. An Orefice jackal led to a quick pass to Snellman who fed Pimental for his first-half hattrick and PRA had accomplished the quick start they needed going into halftime up 19-0.

Atlantis, however, had other plans scoring at the end of first half narrowing the gap to 19-7. After a strong defensive effort, PRA worked the outside again through Orefice and Snellman, setting up Pimental for his fourth try and, after that, a well-deserved rest. Wyatt Appleton led a strong group of finishers (Muller, Miranda, Harrison, Herndon), all of whom immediately provided an impact when they took the field. After a snappy individual effort by Snellman, working his way out of trouble, Appleton got the ball in space on the wing and dotted down a try. Atlantis responded and added a second try on the final play of the match making the final 31-12. PRA secured their second successive trip to the National Youth Final where they would face a strong and undefeated Gorilla side.

Championship Match

The final match would not disappoint, pitting the two undefeated teams in the final. There was some additional excitement as well, as the venue experienced a power outage losing the digital scoreboard and the live feed. PRA's defense started strong and pinned Gorilla back inside their twenty-two, but it was not enough after a few missed tackles the Panthers found themselves behind for the first time in the tournament 7-0 after a coast-to-coast finish from Gorilla.

PRA quickly bounced back with a quick try and great defensive effort by Taich and Ryan allowing Bryson Cook to tie the score at 7-7. PRA then took the lead through another Pimental try before Gorilla bounced back taking advantage of two consecutive yellow cards by PRA and taking the lead 19-12. Then there came what may have been the play of the tournament. Bryson Cook tracked down a sure try from over 70 meters to force a turnover with just a few minutes to play. Haich, Hokafanu, Orefice, Appleton, Ryan and Snellman made tackle after tackle, down a man, before getting back to full strength, regaining possession, and allowing Ryan to tie the score with less than a minute remaining. After a superb defensive stop and a turnover, Snellman burst through the middle scoring on the final play of the match making the score 26-19 and securing a Panther repeat.

A Winning Combination

HS Boys Rugby Director Mike Orefice, and Head Coach Gary Anderson, have been working together for the past four years. They have built a strong working relationship allowing each to concentrate on organization and coaching respectively, which affords the boys in the best position to succeed. Santi Cuccarese did double duty during the week, filling as assistant coach for the U14s (who took 4th in their bracket) and overall tour manager for both age groups. Katz had guest coached for PRA in 2019 when, partnering with Anderson, they led the PRA 2019 U23s to a clean sweep at Tropical 7s. This unbeaten team included a final 22-0 win over Life Rugby in the championship match. Katz also joined Anderson in 2023 to coach last year's U16s National Champions.

"These young men landed in Canton from far and wide and bought into Coach Katz and Anderson's system from the minute they met at the hotel on Wednesday night and played unselfish rugby throughout the weekend," said Orefice. "Three of the boys were extra motivated to repeat and the rest of the boys fed off the energy and brought home the title. It takes a village, and our parent group made the weekend run smoothly and gave the boys what they needed off the pitch to succeed on it."

“Whenever you travel to a tournament, you never know if the team is going to gel," added Katz. "Is there going to be a leader or leaders? And most importantly, can and will they build the trust necessary to find success? The X-factor I have found key over the years is getting them to bond and play for one another which is what this team did this weekend.”

Panther Rugby Academy U16s Roster:
Wyatt Appleton, Raptor Rugby (TN)
Bryson Cook, Tampa StingRays (FL)
Magnus Herndon, Woodlands Rugby (TX)
Sosaia Hokafanu, Wolverines Rugby (CA) **
Gavin Miranda, Woodlands Rugby (TX)
Jett Muller, Tampa StingRays (FL)
Jake Orefice, Raptor Rugby (TN)
Elijah Pimental, Pendleton Rugby (IN)
Arden Redmond, Rebels Rugby (GA)
Harrison Redmond, Rebels Rugby (GA)
Andrew Ryan, Raptor Rugby (TN)
Trace Snellman, Woodlands Rugby (TX) **
Andrew Taich, San Diego Mustangs (CA) **

**All Tournament Team Selections**