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In 2014, underfunded, undertrained and unprepared, Team USA’s boys and girls finished 1-4 and 1-2-1, respectively, at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. The boys’ only win came over Japan, which they lost to in pool play. The girls’ lone win came over Tunisia, and they drew with Spain.
The girls aren’t participating in the Games in Buenos Aires Oct. 6-18, but the boys team representing the USA already has considerably more time under its belt than its predecessor. A handful of players will suit up for the Falcons at this weekend’s Rugbytown 7s before camp opens next week at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
Like in 2014, the USA is only involved because a team which actually qualified declined its bid. With minimal preparation, Emilie Bydwell and JD Stephenson saw their teams fall short at the North American qualifiers at the Las Vegas Invitational in March. Both went undefeated against everyone but Canada, losing in the final. The girls were routed 36-5 in their championship game, while the boys were beaten by conversions, 14-10.
The Youth Olympic Games are a pared down version of the main event, with fewer participants. Canada qualified so many boys teams it had to choose which one to send, and by designating field hockey over rugby, the American boys slid into the six-team rugby competition. No such luck for the girls.
Stephenson named a 12-man squad with two reserves for Buenos Aires. Eight participated in the Vegas qualifiers and a selection tournament held in July at the Can-Ams in Saranac Lake, N.Y. The other four participated in the Can-Ams but not the LVI, so everyone has played with each other under Stephenson at least once this year.
The team also got to spend a high performance camp with Mike Friday’s Eagles, being introduced to the famed Yaka Yard and the training regimen of the senior team. Friday and his staff, which Stephenson joined earlier this year, have been involved along the way.
Eagle Ben Pinkelman will assist Stephenson at Rugbytown, and assistant Phil Greening will be coaching at next week’s camp. The five future Youth Olympians on the Falcons roster are Tyren Al-Jiboori (OK), Alex Cleary (WA), Lauina Falatea (HI), Johnny Mahe (HI) and Junior Waqavesi (CA).
Al-Jiboori is the latest product of the Union High School program in Tulsa and the younger brother of 15s and 7s Eagle Malon and Denver Barbarians standout Michael. Falatea and Mahe are from the vaunted Kahuku program in Hawaii. Recruiting the 50th state is something Stephenson has done since his time at Lindenwood.
Hawaii has recently produced Eagles like Martin Iosefo, Psalm Woching and Pila Taufa. Seattle Seawolves standout Vili Toluta’u also hails from Hawaii.
While the team is better prepared for the Games this time around, the challenge will be stiffer, too. France is entering a team fresh off the Euros, Argentina is hosting, South Africa will be a contender, and Samoa and Japan enter having beaten the USA in Nanjing.
“Financially, having the support of the 7s program has been huge,” said Stephenson.
“I would definitely say we’re a lot better prepared. Seemingly, the competition is going to be a little bit tougher than was faced in China. I think it goes hand-in-hand almost, just that’s what’s was needed to be competitive at this level.”
The schedule for Buenos Aires hasn’t been released, but all six teams will play a round-robin over the first two days, playing two games each. The medal and placing games will take place on day three.
Rugbytown, the Falcons find themselves in Pool D against the British Army, Cayman Islands, N.A. Tsunami Sport Barnarians and the Ramblin’ Jesters.
2018 U.S. YOUTH OLYMPIC MEN'S RUGBY TEAM
Al-Jiboori, Tyren / Union
Clark, Max / Brighton College (ENG)
Cleary, Alex / Chuckanut Bay
Falatea, Lauina / Kahuku
Green, Jasper / St. Paul's (ENG)
Kruse, Isaia / Bullard
Mahe, Sione / Kahuku
Neff, Zachary / C.K. McClatchy Lions
Niutupuivah, Uluamu / Kahuku
Rodriguez, Jon / Play Rugby USA
Waqavesi, Inoke / C.K. McClatchy Lions
Wierenga, Ben / Valley Center Rugby
Will Chevalier (Neuqua Valley Wildcats), Shane Barry (Ramblin' Jesters)
Head Coach | JD Stephenson
Physiotherapist | Alan Wallace