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Ruckettes Rebound in Virginia Championship

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Ruckettes Rebound in Virginia Championship

West End won the DI title handily. (Photo: Rachel Thorne)

West End ended its third-ever 15s season with a DI Virginia state championship. The Ruckettes nearly won the DII title as well, fielding only 12 players against Loudoun but losing 34-33 [see update below]. The spring has been an emotional one – ranging from in-state dominance to national championship struggles, and now West End is bidding farewell to players who helped launch the young program.



“We were playing for more than a state championship,” West End coach Matt Estes said. “The seniors wanted to go out playing like the team they know we are. They wanted to show how we really play.”

West End built a lot of confidence through the spring, crushing league opponents and fielding a DII side that was producing promising players. With another national championship on the East Coast, West End signed up for the DII division, where it finished third in 2014, but were bumped up to DI when Catholic Memorial (Wisc.) dropped down.

“There were some butterflies being bumped up to DI at the last minute,” said Estes, whose team entered the competition as the #8 seed. “We went into that first game knowing we were going to play the number one team [Divine Savior Holy Angels] at the time. We lost by 17 points – the team put in a good, courageous performance. College coaches started talking to us right after that game.”

West End then played NorCal’s Pleasanton – last year’s DII champion – and fell short 17-0, and then took on familiar foe Morris in a 7th place game that ended 15-12 to the New Jersey side.

“We had some challenges going in,” Estes said when the team returned to the practice pitch in preparation for states. “Nationals wasn’t what we wanted, but we looked at the glass as half full and learned from it. We got a lot of positive comments from teams and coaches while up there [in Pittsburgh], and that helped with the girls’ morale.”

Back on their home ground, the Ruckettes took to the next two weeks of training with laser focus, at a level that Estes had never seen from his players.

“We went back to the drawing board,” said Estes. “We remembered where we came from.”

West End rebounded with aplomb, performing at top level, and was rewarded with a 73-10 win over Fairfax Police. Founding member Madison Pennell scored three tries and was named MVP.

“She was on fire,” Estes said. “Her kicks – restarts, conversions, penalties – were, as always, on point. She finished her third consecutive season with 100+ points, which was a personal goal of hers. She is an amazing flyhalf and kept our backline on track.”

Senior wing Kerry Stevens, who is attending Ohio State in the fall, also had a great game. She leaves a huge hole in West End’s offense and defense, where she always makes try-saving tackles. Senior prop Megan Kesler will also be missed, even as a first-year player.

“She has some intangible qualities you can’t coach,” Estes said of the front-rower. “Despite her one year of experience, she got a lot of interest from several big schools [at nationals] that were jockeying for position to get her on their roster next year.”

Estes must now balance the onset of the summer 7s season (where West End reigns as five-time state champion) with preparation for the Regional All-Star Championship (RAST) in late June. The program is so big over the summer that it needs more coaches to lead its five middle school-high school teams. Meanwhile, tomorrow Estes will make selections for the RAST.

“We’re excited that we’re getting most of the players from last year’s team back for this year,” Estes said of all-star selections. “Everyone’s bigger, faster, smarter, and their rugby IQ has elevated. We’ll have a healthy balance of players and expect at least six other teams represented on the squad.”

Estes also has some longer-term goals on his agenda. The coach contacted Tom Feury from Morris after nationals, and both were already thinking about how to close the gap with West Coast teams, which dominated at the national championship. They gleaned as much information as possible while at Pittsburgh and will be looking to pump up their future spring schedules.

“I asked the coach from DSHA [John Klein] how they ran their Midwest championship,” Estes said. “I called Tom, and he said, ‘Funny you should say that. I was talking to coaches up there, too.’ We could do a Mid-Atlantic tournament, or something pre-season to get the blood pumping in our teams. It’s tough otherwise to find that competition in our own backyard.”

West End is young and resilient, and both the coaching staff and players are eager to grow. Stay tuned during the summer, as the Ruckettes chase a sixth state 7s championship and fuel the Virginia state all-star team.

6.1 Update: Per Loudoun coach Mike Windle, the Dragons actually won the DII championship by a comfortable margin. Loudoun took a 33-5 halftime lead, at which point West End declined to continue in the 12 v 15 format. To bank some more playing time, the teams played 10s in the second half, but West End's 28-point run did not count toward the official score.