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Tiger Rugby has been increasingly busy over the last couple of years – opening a full-time training facility in Columbus, Ohio, developing an affiliate network and continuing to take domestic and international tours.
The last couple of months have been no different, as Tiger unveiled its women’s program and swept Cancun 7s, with the men and women going undefeated en route to tournament titles. And the next several months will remain busy, with plenty of developments on the horizon.
The Mexican tour was a momentous occasion as it marked the debut of the Tiger women, coached by Julie McCoy and Karl Barth. For them, it was considered a Tiger Cup tour, as the team consisted of eight players under the age of 21 who’d never been on an international tour, two crossover projects from the Olympic Training Center in Alev Kelter and Liz Sowers, and just two veteran leaders in Irene Gardner and Lauren Hoeck.
With players coming together from all over the country, most of whom had never played together before, the leadership of Gardner and Hoeck was big.
“They demonstrate a lot of maturity and really wanted to give back, and looked at it as an opportunity to play, go to Mexico, but also help bring kids along,” McCoy said of the World Cup veterans.
While it can be hard to tab standouts in a dominating performance like the Tiger women had in Cancun, McCoy said three players improved dramatically over the course of the tour – Kristen Thomas from Orlando, Hannah Bell from Norwich and Frieda Fetu’u from Salt Lake City.
“Those three probably took the opportunity and progressed the most from Thursday to Saturday, but all of them played well,” said McCoy. “All of them progressed, but they were more obvious taking the opportunity and running with it a little bit faster than the rest.”
Standing out amongst everyone, though, was Kelter. A new convert from the University of Wisconsin, where she played both ice hockey and soccer for the Badgers, Kelter displayed extreme athleticism. She’s represented the United States at the age-grade levels in both hockey and soccer, and now she’s plying her ability at the Olympic Training Center in rugby.
“The competition on the women’s side was commensurate to the Tiger Cub level of play. The girls had to work really hard together, and play some good 7s, to beat the other teams. It was good for the young girls to get their taste for what it was like to play in that tournament,” said McCoy.
“Toward the end of the day, they started getting better and better and they could have used even better competition, which is good. All we ask is for our players to do is make progress, and they progressed definitely throughout the tournament, felt pretty good about themselves, and hopefully they’ll want more.”
The men were equally impressive, winning most of their games by comfortable margins. It was a full-blown Tiger tour for them, with several accomplished returnees. Dallen Stanford came out of semi-retirement to help lead the team, and coach James Walker was very complimentary of his contributions on the field, as well as those of Perry Baker and Mikey Te’o.
“Perry Baker was awesome on the weekend. He’s really been working on his tackling, and it showed,” said Walker. “Mike Te’o was Mike Te’o.”
The men did have to go through a bit of adversity, as a lack of forwards forced some backs into unfamiliar roles.
“We only really had two true forwards in Kelly Kolberg and Mike Ziegler, so we used Dean Gericke there and Taylor Howden and Ryan Cochran. It kind of created a few issues for us, but we sorted it out. It’s good for the boys to be able to play multiple positions, so we focused on that and got through it.”
The tournament win came off the heels of a disappointing trip to Scotland, where Tiger was bounced from Melrose 7s after just one game.
“We played one game in the tournament and lost by one point to a team that went to the semifinals,” said Walker. “That wasn’t great. It is what it is. That’s the way the Melrose tournament’s structured. We needed to come back strong in this one, and we did.”
The next big tour for the men is Central Coast 7s in Australia in the fall. It’s a very tough field, maybe the toughest Tiger will have ever competed in, littered with teams from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. The Tiger coaches are also partnering with UR7s to do a tour of camps and clinics in Kenya.
On the women’s side, McCoy is working on creating a full-time training center in Little Rock, Ark., like the Tiger men have in Columbus. She said she has many ducks in a row on the project, and is hoping to line a few more up in the coming weeks.