Women's Club 7s National Championship preview

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Sixteen of the very best women’s sevens teams in the country will descend upon the pitches of the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn. Aug. 12-13 to compete for the 2017 USA Rugby Emirates Airlines Club 7s National Championship. This summer’s tournament field includes three previous National Champions (American Rugby Pro Training Center, San Diego Surfers and Scion Sirens), and two squads making their very first championship appearance (Atavus Academy and Minneapolis Rugby).

The women’s bracket initiates Nationals Saturday, Aug. 12 at 10 a.m. CT, and concludes Sunday, Aug. 13 in the Women’s Cup Final at 4:05 p.m. CT. All 96 matches from the 2017 Club 7s National Championship will air on The Rugby Channel – 86 of the games to be broadcast live, while 10 matches from Sunday, Aug. 13’s Shield and Plate competitions will be available for re-air on The Rugby Channel.

Pool A

Scion Sirens, Life West Gladiatrix, Glendale Merlins and Tempe Ninjas

Reigning Club 7s National Champions the Scion Sirens headline Pool A in Minneapolis. After winning each of the four Mid-Atlantic qualifying tournaments, Scion is coming into Nationals in excellent form. Still, the Sirens might not be the same dominant force that won all six of its games at the 2016 National Championship. Five players from last year’s Cup-hoisting squad are with the Eagles in Ireland competing in the Women’s Rugby World Cup. Fortunately for Scion, 2016 Club 7s MVP Kiki Morgan will be lacing up her boots at Nationals with the Sirens again.

Life West’s dominant 2017 season in 15s ended in the club’s first Division I National Championship. The team’s special combination of power and athleticism should translate well onto the sevens pitch even though capped Eagle Megan Foster is now running with the San Diego Surfers, and forward Catherine Benson was selected for World Cup duty. The Gladiatrix might not have all the tools to their disposal that they had in the spring, but they were good enough to place ahead of perennial Club 7s Cup Quarterfinalists Berkeley All Blues and Oregon Sports Union in the Pacific North qualifying series.

Glendale might be playing under a new name, but the Merlins are just as potent as yesteryears Raptors. They lacked regional competition this summer, but went out of their way to find sturdy opposition at the Roy Lucas 7s in Portland where they faced off against Atavus Academy and Oregon Sports Union. Players to keep an eye on are enforcer Kris Peterson and flyer Justine Wypych.

Few teams make much of a splash at Nationals during their first championship appearance, and that was the case with Tempe last year. The Ninjas dropped their first five games in Denver before ending the tournament on a high note by besting the Austin Valkyries, 17-12. It’ll be a daunting task to advance to the Cup Quarterfinals out of Pool A, but expect a much more prepared Tempe team in Minnesota this weekend.

Pool B

New York Rugby Club, Philadelphia Rugby, Chicago Lions and Austin Valkyries

After winning the Women’s Premier League’s Red Conference this past fall, New York Rugby Club powered its way to Club 7s qualification after missing out on Nationals last year. 2014 and 2016 Cup Finalists Old Blue might have been the favorites to win Atlantic North’s sevens series, but failed to outplay New York at any of the regional tournaments, as the WPL side won all four Atlantic North events, including the July 15 Championship tournament when it defeated Beantown in the Final. The squad includes Evi Ashenbrucker, who showed well in defeat for the WPL All-Stars in their friendly against the Women’s Eagles.

Thanks to two Mid-Atlantic teams finishing in the top-six at Nationals last year, including 2016 Champions Scion, the region was granted three spots to this year’s tournament, and Philadelphia took advantage. It didn’t come without competition, though, as the club had to hold of WPL’s D.C. Furies for the third-place finish in the Mid-Atlantic. Although Philadelphia needed a third seed to reach Nationals, the team has plenty of experience to go along with a talented roster, having qualified for Nationals every year from 2011-2015.

After failing to qualify for Nationals last year, the Chicago Lions were hell-bent on getting back to Club 7s this summer. In fact, the Lions were so good this summer that they didn’t need to compete at the Midwest 7s Championship. By winning each of its region’s three qualifying events ahead of the regional championship, Chicago earned the ‘Golden Ticket’ for its trio of first-place finishes, qualifying the team ahead of the Midwest Championship. There’s several playmakers in the Midwest outfit, but none as dangerous as Davenport University All-American Danielle Ordway.

The Austin Valkyries have quietly been winning lots of games in both 15s and sevens the past few years. Both 2016 and 2017 seasons in 15s ended in the National Playoffs, and the team qualified for its first Club 7s National Championship last summer. However, the results at the 2016 Championship didn’t go its way as Austin went winless, but the added experience and numerous head-to-head battles with the 2015 Club 7s National Champions, American Rugby Pro Training Center, should have the Valkyries ready to turn their fortunes around in Minnesota.

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Pool C

American Rugby Pro Training Center, San Diego Surfers, Atlanta Harlequins and Beantown

There are no easy matches when it comes to a National Championship event, but Pool C appears to be especially challenging with two of the teams owning three Club 7s titles between the pair.

The women of the American Rugby Pro Training Center looked like they were on their way to a second consecutive National Championship until Scion scrapped past them, 12-7, in the 2016 Cup Semifinals. Aside from their five-point defeat to the eventual National Champions, ARPTC outscored its opposition 164-17. The National Development Academy won’t have the luxury of Jess Wooden in its backline, as she is in Ireland with the Eagles for the Women’s World Cup, but the program’s benefits to campers continuously brings top collegiate talent to its facilities in Little Rock, Ark. This summer’s cast of college standouts includes Brown University’s Oksana Goretaya and Davenport University’s Olivia Ortiz.

Like APRTC, the San Diego Surfers are a former Club 7s National Champion that only lost one game in 2016’s tournament. Now that the team has its first WPL title under its belt thanks to an incredible 15s campaign in 2016, the Surfers are looking to reach the Cup Final in sevens for the first time since winning it all in 2014. Like several teams at Nationals, San Diego has an important piece of its puzzle on National Team duty – Deven Owsiany – and stalwart Kara Mathews is taking the summer off. Still, do-everything star and 2016 Club 7s Dream Team member Tia Blythe is around to make things miserable for opposing defenses. The Surfers have also added capped Eagles Megan Foster, Joanna Fa’avesi and Kelsi Stockert.

It’s been three years since the Atlanta Harlequins have played in a Club 7s National Championship, but their impressive performance in the South not only qualified the WPL team, but have the Quins looking like Cup Quarterfinalist contenders. Center Monique Compito is coming off a 15s season in which she scored five tries against some of the best competition in the country and earned WPL Player of the Week honors. Additionally, Kimberly Knipe came create mismatches with her length and strength, and Christina Swift might be able to aid in an upset over ARPTC. The recent Life University graduate was a member of ARPTC during last year’s National Championship tournament.

Beantown hasn’t played in a National Championship since 2013, but the team’s ability to stave off 2016 runner-up Old Blue for the Atlantic North’s No. 2 seed gives the impression that its qualification this summer was well-earned. While Old Blue’s omission from the National Championship field is surprising, Beantown’s qualification shouldn’t come as a shock. The team lost just one 15s game prior to its defeat to the Raleigh Venom in the Division I Quarterfinals, and will be joining the WPL ranks this fall. The Boston-based side has welcomed the presence of former Eagle Jessica Davis, who has recently gotten back into a high-performance rugby environment after an All-American career at American International College.

Pool D

Atavus Academy, Northern Virginia Rugby, Orlando Rugby and Minneapolis Rugby

Two teams in Pool D are making their first Club 7s National Championship appearance, but don’t mistake the grouping as inexperienced. Atavus Academy and Minneapolis Rugby have similar rosters of highly regarded sevens programs Seattle Saracens and the Youngbloodz, respectively.

As a club, Seattle didn’t field a men’s or women’s sevens team this summer, leaving many of the Sarries to reunite under the Atavus label. In fact, half of last year’s Seattle Saracens team that reached the 2016 Cup Quarterfinals will be in Minneapolis playing for Atavus. That group includes Lauren Barber, Carly MacKinnon, Anne Peterson and recently capped Women’s Eagles Sevens athlete Megan Sanders. This summer, Atavus won each Paficif Northwest tournament before taking first-place at the July 29 Pacific North Championship that included the Berkeley All Blues, Life West Gladiatrix, Oregon Sports Union and San Francisco Golden Gate.

Like Atavus, half of Minneapolis’ squad was on the Youngbloodz at last summer’s Club 7s National Championships, but the elite Midwest training group has rebranded itself. Nine of the 12 players on the team are originally from the state of Minnesota, and every player has Midwest roots. Competing under the tutelage of Team USA Olympian Kathryn Johnson, two of Minneapolis’ best players are also its most experienced – former Eagles Libby Berg and Kaelene Lundstrum. Although lacking the sevens experience of Berg and Lundstrum, Lanoira Duhart must be firmly marked by the opposition at Nationals. The All-American forward out of Winona State University has been given collegiate opponents fits the past few years.

NOVA will be playing in the club’s seventh National Championship event, and the team has reached at least the Cup Quarterfinals in each of the six tournaments its competed in. NOVA has a similar outfit from the one that finished sixth in Denver last summer, and half of its team are current or former student-athletes of the always competitive University of Virginia program, including former Collegiate All-American Bri Kim. Two players on the squad are graduates of West Chester University and both were All-Americans during their time in Southeast Pennsylvania. Nicole Benedetti has been one of NOVA’s best playmakers since her time at West Chester, and the other is Ariel Johnson, who made her remarkable return to the rugby pitch last year after a bout with cancer.

Orlando’s progression as a formidable sevens unit has continued in 2017. In 2015, the team qualified for its first Club 7s National Championship, but finished second-to-last. Last summer, Orlando improved its tournament record to a respectable 3-3. Another competitive step forward and the team, which brings back two-thirds of its 2016 Championship roster, could find itself in the Cup Quarterfinals. Of its eight returning players, two have earned USA Eagles Sevens camp invites – Steph Browne and Jessica Warner.