Observations on HS Nationals
Observations on HS Nationals
The Boys HS National Championship is over and done and we have out champions, but we also have some thoughts and observations about the game and the tournament.
We will have more to say on this but the key thing it, the HS National Championships offer teams and players many opportunities to give up. And even if a team succumbs to chaos in one game, the players have a chance to bounce back a day later. It's part of the attraction—these are often the toughest games these players will face all season, and the next game is also the hardest game they will play. It was gratifying to watch teams absorb some pretty humbling losses only to come back the next day making adjustments, and winning.
And if not winning, at least playing well. Greenwich, Berks, Regis Jesuit, Pendleton, Danville all did something along these lines.
The Gravity of the Moment
What you can't do is make avoidable mistakes. One of those is deciding in the heat of the moment that you weren't held in the tackle and to bounce back up. This usually is a terrible idea—unless you hear the ef say "not held" or you are ankle-tapped in open-field, assume you've been tackles. Why? Because the benefit of getting back up when you think you're not held is maybe five meters ... big deal. The negative outcome? A penalty against you. Why would you balance five more meters for a chance for a turnover and being backed down the field?
Two other important errors center around restarts. We saw several restart kicks that didn't go 10 meters, and that's an error that is entirely avoidable. First off, teams knew there was wind, so a high, lofting kick designed to go 11 meters runs the risk of being blown back, so don't do it. And a restart that's exactly 10 meters isn't that important anyway ... make sure.
On the other side, too many teams failed to catch kickoffs. This has been an ongoing joke within the St. Ignatius coaching staff, as their teams seem to be determined to drop restarts at the national tournament. So of course in their opening match they let the ball bounce and it rolled and rolled and they ended up defending their line for about 10 minutes.
Dropping restarts, or letting them land, was a killer for several teams.
But there are more mistakes that crop up when good teams play good teams. Big ground-gainers who got accolades for busting through tackles only to lose the ball when finally taken to the ground (this was a problem for Jesuit in the final, for example). Getting so excited about an overlap that a support runner outruns his teammates and the scoring pass is forward. Looking at the defense as the pass comes to you when your first job is to catch the ball. Stretching to score that try when someone is there to slide under the ball.
Overall the skill level, tactical awareness, and execution were good. But what teams also found was that when a mistake killed a scoring chance, they were unlikely to get another one, and when a mistake gave away a turnover, it was often punished.
These were, as we said, the toughest opponents any of these teams had faced.
Loose Is Good
All of the teams that won their championships were in good moods, relaxed, loose on Saturday. Vienna had lost their captain,Camden Erickson, to broken wrist in April, but he was with the team smiling and supporting his teammates, not sulking glumly off to the side. (A certified ref, Erickson even referees a JV game that day.) The players as a whole had found that playing relaxed and with an eye toward fun had generated almost a point a minute the day before.
So in a back-and-forth game that saw Vienna and SOC match each other (almost) try for try, and with two centers in Andrew Evan and Jacob Bower both playing really well, fans were treated to an exciting game. Vienna ran training ground plays that they executed well because they weren't anxious. Scrumhalf Diego Gonzalez had possibly his best game for his team, passing consistently, finding space with cheeky box kicks, and logging 11 points with the boot.
Belmont Shore, having made the HS Club final only to lose last year, showed up with music, a stuffed blue whale, and plenty of jokes (hooker and captain Nathan Vargs saying he was going to play fullback in the final) and a desire to play wild and free. Max "Tonga Tank" Amasio is a huge athlete at loosehead prop who can run and sidestep and blew the game open. Lenny Ibarra was smooth and unpredictable at flyhalf. When a player made a break, someone was there to help out, and they never gave up on defense.
Gonzaga, too, brought the music and the smiles. They had a quiet confidence about them and, as we'll learn in a deeper look at their championship run, they embraced rather than avoided their #1 status. A superb showing from some players we don't talk about much, such as flyhalf Kieran Downs and the thunder-and-lightning midfield combo of Steele Dombo and Brody Johnson, combined with a back row group of defenders who just don't miss saw them essentially dominate.
The final try of that game was by Jesuit, with Josef Mokofisi scoring in the corner (right where he scored to beat Ignatius). Mokofisi then lined up the touchline conversion, with his teammates cheering him on, and slotted the goal. The game was over, and Gonzaga had won, but we were in the weird position of seeing two celebrations at once as Jesuit teammates celebrated their big hero. Actually, we had three celebrations, as the Gonzaga bench thought the game was over about a minute before and charged the field, only to be sent back.
A goofy end to a serious season and therein, perhaps, lies the lesson. At the heart of it we do all of this because it's fun. Yes it teaches you things and teamwork, family, unity, perseverance, and toughness are all important, but you're not enjoying yourself, maybe you're missing something.
Good Teams That Don't Win
Spare a thought for Layton Christian, who were a lot of run to watch, were very unlucky not to win their opener against top-seed Granite Bay, and ended up 0-3 by a total (a total) of five points. A little bounce of the ball here or there and LCA might have been in the club final.
Spare a thought for Rye HS, which showed that you can show up as a single-school team that has never been to Nationals and has a small bench and not very big players overall, and can compete. yes they went 0-3 as well, but were close to Gonzaga at halftime in that opener, and battled throughout the weekend.
Spare a thought for St. Thomas Aquinas, which ended up 0-3 at Tier II and stayed positive and unified. And they were within a try until the final seconds against eventually Tier II winners Vienna. Sometimes it goes like that.
Major League Rugby is a sponsor of the event now and several members of the Chicago Hounds made the trip down to see the games, interact with the players, and also jump on the broadcast. This photo shows Nick Taylor and Sam Peri addrssing the Vienna and SOC players after the Tier II final. (Alex Goff photo)
No one is ever happy with referees when the stakes are high, but the HSNC brought in extra referees and refs who are fit, strong, and coming up through the panels and so can keep up with the pace of these games. They added #4s and so had a four-official team for every game. Think on that—36 games, with a center ref, two ARs, and a #4 for every game without so overworking everyone that they were exhausted by the end of it all.
The officials were an excellent and much-needed feature of this tournament: Shawn Bastic; Jones Cole; Amanda Cross; Tim Enos; Curtis Ethridge; Patrick Feitt; Thomas Foley; Kyle George; Mike Groenewald; Bryan Harshbarger; Rachel Hill; Fred Keeling; Michael Lawrenson; Steven Midthun; Will Mishler; S. Nigel Platt; Jake Winkler.
The Venue and the Event
Yes GRR's fearless editor is indeed on the BHSNC Board, so we'll skip the bit about how the Board is great. Although, really, the seeding and how the tiers were split were pretty well done ... really, really well done in fact. And we saw three new champions; that's good too, right?
What we will say is this: it's hard to imagine better rugby fields in America than those at the Moose Rugby Grounds. The grass was beautiful. The fields hosted 150 games this spring and you would never know it. They looked and felt as if they hadn't been played on at all. Strong, healthy grass fields also make for less potential for injuries. With the three-game schedule for HS Nationals, that's important.
A large group of volunteers spend their weekend emptying trash bins and mowing grass, relining fields, and making sure everything is working; the trainers were all in golf carts ready to respond quickly when there was an injury. It was an extremely well-run event (we can say that because did nothing to run the event except do interviews and broadcast stuff).
Can another venue match it? We'll see.