MVP Gonzalez Talks S&S and Beyond
MVP Gonzalez Talks S&S and Beyond
An element of surprise tints many of Renee Gonzalez's rugby experiences, but the now-senior was expecting to attend her second Stars & Stripes camp as a veteran. That was, of course, until the Stars staff asked the 17-year-old fullback to have a go at flanker. The forwards. Scrums. Lineouts. Cue crippling nerves. But the staff had it right, and when game day arrived, Gonzalez put in an MVP performance that led the Stars to a 37-33 victory Saturday. The Armstrong (Minn.) player was totally surprised by the award – but that's bound to happen when one has played for fewer than two years and is already as successful as Gonzalez.
Gonzalez moved from Canada to Minnesota for her sophomore year at West Lutheran High School. The track-softball-volleyball-soccer player was playing basketball near her grandparents’ home, when an adult approached her.
“He came up to me and asked if I wanted to play rugby,” Gonzalez said of Armstrong team grandparent Ed “Gramps” Dols, Haylee Thull’s grandfather. “I didn’t know what rugby was, but I hadn’t made any friends yet, so I said, ‘Sure!’
“I thought that was normal in Minnesota,” Gonzalez said of friendly strangers, “because everyone is so nice here.”
She joined the perennial state champ and then played two minutes in Armstrong's first fall game – and that’s all it took. Gonzalez quickly showcased her speed, strength in contact, and ability to attack space on offense and cover it quickly on defense. She made the Minnesota Tundra team that won the Midwest Rugby Challenge in spring 2014, and she was tabbed for an invite to her first Stars & Stripes camp.
“I didn’t know what it was or what it meant until I got there,” Gonzalez said of her initial reaction to the invite. “I was shy and timid. I was still learning the game, and I was nervous about playing with new people and only having a couple of days to play as a team.”
But it turned out to be a great experience. Gonzales was surrounded by players who understood their roles on the pitch, and with that need for continual instruction removed, players were able to operate at another level.
“After that, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted [in rugby], just that I wanted to play at the highest level,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez wasn’t satisfied with her performance, however, assuming that the intimidation she felt impacted her performance. But the Stars & Stripes staff disagreed and named her to first-ever Girls High School All American (GHSAA) team.
“I’m very hard on myself,” Gonzalez addressed the contradiction. “I like to push as hard as I can; I want to be the best I can. Even if I make one mistake, I want to be on top of that.”
She got involved with various select sides, including the Midwest Thunderbirds and Atlantis, and was invited to the GHSAAs first-ever showing at the 2015 LVI 7s. She had already committed to the Tundra, which was coached by former Eagle 7s captain Christy Ringgenberg, and honored that promise. Gonzalez was concerned that the “snub” was going to eliminate her from consideration of the 2015 Stars & Stripes, but she was pleasantly surprised to make the cut and returned to Greeley, Colo., this past week along with 49 other high school athletes.
This time, she came in confident, but that didn’t mean challenges awaited. On day two, the group divided into teams, and Gonzalez joined the Stars, which was led by Emilie Bydwell and supported by Evi Ashenbrucker and Brad Young. After a little game and some drills, the Stars staff approached the back.
“At the beginning, the coaches said that they knew I was good at fullback; I tackle well when people get through and am good about running into space,” Gonzalez recounted. “During drills, they saw how my speed and strength worked out, and that they would be benefited at flanker, that there's more opportunity at flanker.”
Gonzalez was game. She entered her first-ever forwards practice with a positive attitude.
“I just hated it,” she said without hesitation. “I didn’t know what to do; there was so much information. I wasn’t having fun. I was on the verge of crying.”
Gonzalez expressed as much during her one-on-one coaching interviews, and the staff calmed her fears by reiterating what a good fit she’d be in the loose forward.
“Emilie helped me out a lot,” she said. “She also said how she can see me going higher at flanker than fullback.”
That seemed to snap her nto the right mindset. She was still nervous as she packed down in her first-ever scrum, “but then I just loved it,” she said of the position move. “I loved all the tackling, and all the rucks. During the game, I thought, ‘If I’m going to play this position, I’m going to go hard, have fun, and listen to my teammates.’”
Gonzalez did just that, got here hands on the ball a bunch, and scored a try in the Stars’ 37-33 victory. GHSAA head coach Farrah Douglas chose Gonzalez for the MVP because, after a rocky start, she fully embraced her position change and didn’t ease on the intensity just because she lacked experience at flanker.
What’s next for Gonzalez? She still has her senior year of high school to finish, and in that time she’ll head to Kansas City with Armstrong, and look to align with the Thunderbirds, Atlantis, and Tundra for more high-level playing opportunities. She’s looking toward college, which presents a dilemma. Gonzalez wants to play in the Olympics one day. She’s a Canadian citizen and in the U.S. on a student visa. She’ll eventually be eligible for the Eagles in international tests, but not the Olympics. Therefore, she’s checking out two programs right now: Lindenwood and University of Victoria in British Columbia. She’s befriended soon-to-be Lady Lions Carly McPolin and Marquesa Su'esu'e, and trained at UVic during Commonwealth Games tryouts.
Gonzalez realizes some big decisions lie in her future, but rest assured, wherever she ends up, pleasant surprises will follow.