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Next Man Up Fuels Panther Rugby Academy Run to Youth Title

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Next Man Up Fuels Panther Rugby Academy Run to Youth Title

Panther Rugby Academy at National Sevens Youth Rugby Championships. PRA photo.

Panther Rugby Academy on the National Sevens Youth Championships over the weekend in Cleveland, but it certainly wasn't easy. 

They had their obstacles for sure. They lost starter Tony Mack a few days before the event and another, Kai Campbell, in pool play both to injury. Those two losses hurt but they also revealed how tight this group was.

"I’ve never seen a U16s side have such a next-man-up attitude as I did with this group," said Panther Coach Gary Anderson. "Much of this comes from our captain, Justin Albouy. Justin has been with us on multiple tours, winning Topical 7s in 2022 and missing out on a repeat in 2023 on a missed conversion with no time left, so he knows both sides of that final whistle."

Certainly the PRA side went through some in-game challenges through the tournament.  

"Pool play really set up for us well," said Anderson, who runs the University of Kentucky program and had Dave Katz coaching also while Santiago Cuccarese and Mike Orefice managed team and tour logistics. "Our pool was tough; we were tested by four teams that play various different styles. San Diego coming off their recent 15s National Final, do everything well and pushed us to the final whistle 17-12.  EIRA, a perennial powerhouse, had a solid 9-10 combination who tested us early, but our defense led the way 29-0. Celina, a strong side out of Texas, was a real handful. Those boys spend some serious time in the gym and tried to smash it up on us. We spent most of that game on defense where we learned a lot about heart pulling out the win 21-19." 

Having secured a semifinal spot, Panther was able to get players some additional time. Both Andrew Ryan and Elijah Pimentel got starts and were impressive in a 47-7 victory. Unforutnately, starting scrumhalf Mariano Cuccarese, who had been playing quite well, took a head knock and was out of the game. Once again, next man up.

Next up was the semifinal against Charlotte Tigers.

"We knew Charlotte was going to be tough as they had a deadly backline," said Anderson. "We needed to press up on them hard and force them to pass under pressure, something they did not have to do much in pool play. The strategy worked. We forced several turnovers in the first half and built up a nice lead."

Panther cruised from there 27-5.

In the final, the Panther Rugby Academy faced another team with players coming off HS Nationals success. This time it was HS Club champs Belmont Shore. 

"To win most national tournaments you will find yourself having to go through Belmont Shore," said Anderson. "Johnny Pua runs a great program. We knew Belmont played a very similar style to ours, they move the ball well, offload in contact, and turn you over if you don’t support the breakdown. With all those things being equal we once again leaned on our defensive press to force turnovers, which it did."

Belmont Shore's excellent attack was held in check and Panther took a lead in the first half and held onto it.

Panther won the championship in part because they didn't let vaunted names intimidate them. They played some of the very best youth 7s programs in the nation and had a plan for each, even when they saw players go down ... it was always Next Man Up.

Panther Rugby Academy U16 Roster: 
Justin Albouy - North Carolina
Kai Campbell - North Carolina
Eli Caprio - Texas
Mariano Cuccarese - Tennessee
Dillon Demidovich - North Carolina
Sarp Kundacki -Tennessee
Cam Lenhart - Georgia
Landon Lockhart-Keener Georgia
Tony Mack – Ohio
Jake Orefice – Tennessee
Elijah Pimental- Indiana
Andrew Ryan – Tennessee
Zane Smith- Texas
Jubilee Gordon- Ohio