LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The AIG Women’s Collegiate All-American Sevens team will enter its second Rugby Sevens tournament in a year Aug. 19-20 at the ATAVUS Elite Women’s 7s Tournament held at Infinity Park.
Joining Brandon Sparks’ under-23 national team in the competition are four ATAVUS squads comprised of campers from the Aug. 16-20 ATAVUS Women’s Performing 7s Resident Camp and 2016 USA Rugby Emirates Airline Club 7s National Champion Scion Rugby Academy. Seattle Saracens’ Kelsi Stockert will captain the side having also competed at Club 7s in Denver Aug. 13-14.
The WCAA Sevens team made its debut in Philadelphia last August in the first women’s bracket at Elite City Sevens. Sparks’ squad included several players that have since gone on to receive international caps with the Women’s Eagles and Women’s Eagles Sevens, such as Megan Foster, Nate Serevi, and Nicole Strasko. Meya Bizer and Richelle Stephens were both chosen to Team USA’s Rugby Sevens team at the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games as a reserve and squad member, respectively, while others have been named to this year’s player pools for the All-Americans and Eagles.
“Last year was a mix of giving the Olympic Training Center players who hadn’t had much of a chance to play in the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series a chance to get a run-out and show what they’ve learned while at the OTC and wanting to identify some new players who should be entering the pathway,” Sparks said. “It was a massive success as we saw players like Richelle Stephens, Megan Foster, and Nicole Strasko make their presence felt at Elite City Sevens, which earned them spots with the senior teams.
“This year we wanted to start adding some depth to the pool now that the new cycle has begun by giving some new faces a chance to play at the next level. We also wanted to give some established players who fit the profile a chance to show the senior staff they can earn a residency spot.”
The WCAAs ended up winning Elite City Sevens over teams like American Rugby Pro Training Center – which had just won its first Club 7s National Championship – and an Armed Forces representative side. In Scion and a slew of “all-star” teams that will no doubt put the WCAAs to the test in six matches, Sparks’ squad will receive the full national team treatment during their four-day stay in Colorado.
“While it is great to win every event, it is not our main goal,” the head coach said. “The WCAAs are a stop on the pathway, so our main goal is to make sure we are giving the players the right set of tools to make sure they can perform the job here, but also practice for the next level.”
Stockert earned her first senior cap at the Women’s Rugby Super Series last summer, while long-time All-American and 2016 Women’s D1 Elite National Champion Tess Feury was called up from the XVs WCAAs to the Eagles squad at this year’s Super Series in Utah. The two are the only members of the 12-athlete squad that have been capped at the senior level, though several have represented the United States with one or more of the age-grade programs.
Life University’s Kaitlyn Broughton nearly doubled her National Championship output for the season with Old Blue of New York at Club 7s, while Stephanie Browne (Orlando), Macie Helgenberger (Glendale Raptors/Colorado State University), and Bulou Mataitoga (Berkeley All Blues/American International College) played senior club rugby over the weekend at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Ashlee Byrge is the only returning member of the inaugural WCAA Sevens team – Nicole Benedetti (NOVA 7s) was originally selected but sustained an injury in the build-up to Club 7s – and has several years of All-American and National Championship experience under her belt.
Lindenwood University’s Davon Thomas, 20, was playing senior club rugby with NDA Tiger Rugby two years ago, while McKenzie Koval (Michigan State University/Grand Rapids Gazelles) and Alena Olsen (University of Michigan/Legacy Rugby Academy) have also spent time this summer training with senior teams. Each of the 12 players selected to the WCAA Sevens team represents a unique school and/or club, as none of the athletes play their competitive rugby together.
“I believe my role as a coach of an age-grade program is to identify talent that can compete at the next level from teams that don’t benefit from the level of exposure that varsity or established programs receive,” Sparks said. “We are lucky enough to live in a massive country that is often in front of the wave when it comes to sports science, and because of this even the smallest programs have athletes who take this sport seriously and should be given a shot to compete at this level.
“Often times players will look around the room and see the names and faces they’ve heard so much about and feel like they don’t belong. We need them to understand that they are here for the same reason as the more established players. They’ve earned this shot, they deserve to be here, and they need to believe they can perform at this level like we know they can.”
Following the Team USA Rugby Sevens squad’s fifth-place finish at the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games, where the U.S. was the only team not to lose to gold medalist Australia, the Women’s Pathway now turns its attentions to Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017, Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The weekend’s tournament at Infinity Park precedes an Aug. 28 National Tracking Camp at the Olympic Training Center, where Women’s Eagles Sevens Head Coach Richie Walker and additional national team staff members will be on hand to scout athletes hoping to train full-time in Chula Vista, Calif., from the beginning of the new four-year cycle.
The WCAA Sevens will also have on opportunity to play in front of Walker and Co. this weekend, but will be focused on the job at hand rather than thinking of future national team accolades and selections.
“The experienced players know that they are to set an example of what it means to be an elite athlete,” Sparks said. “These are practices that exist already in their daily routines, and the younger players know that this is a learning experience in an environment where they can ask questions to gain knowledge of the process of becoming an elite player in the USA Rugby Pathway.
“Both groups will have the shared outcome of improving their game for the collective whole. With this mindset, they should all be leaders and set an example for each other.”
AIG Women’s Collegiate All-American Sevens | ATAVUS Elite Women’s 7s Tournament
Kaitlyn Broughton – Life University / Old Blue of New York
Stephanie Browne – Orlando
Ashlee Byrge – Davenport University
Nicole Ciccarelli – Mount St. Mary’s University
Tess Feury – Pennsylvania State University
Macie Helgenberger – Colorado State University / Glendale Raptors
McKenzie Koval – Michigan State / Grand Rapids Gazelles
Bulou Mataitoga – American International College / Berkeley All Blues
Maria Michelotti – Montana State University
Alena Olsen – Michigan / Legacy Rugby Academy 7s
Kelsi Stockert (C) – Seattle Saracens
Davon Thomas – Lindenwood University
AIG Women’s Collegiate All-American Sevens | Coaching Staff
Brandon Sparks – Head Coach
Amie Kern – Physiotherapist
Alice Plant – Team Leader / Manager