By Lisa Huff Henrich
This past weekend, the Orchard Park Girls Rugby team traveled to SUNY Binghamton University and won their third consecutive State Championship.
Saturday’s semi-final against Syracuse saw 11 different athletes scoring tries for OP. Emily Henrich kicked a remarkable 13 conversions in the first half. The team was grateful for the opportunity to have the entire traveling squad play at least a half on Saturday as many of the Seniors returned to Orchard Park on Saturday night to attend the Prom.
Sunday found Orchard Park in familiar territory – facing off against Play Rugby USA Academy (out of New York City) in the final. Play Rugby USA was defending champion (from 2014) when the two squads first met in 2015 – a match OP won 32-29. The score was even closer in 2016, when OP defeated Play Rugby USA by a score of 12-10.
Despite the teams’ history, the first minutes of the New York State Championship caught Orchard Park initially unprepared for the hard-hitting, scrappy style that defines Play Rugby. In fact, Play Rugby USA received the first of its 3 yellow cards in the opening minutes, as one of Play Rugby’s biggest forwards smashed into fly-half Katie Niver long after her pass was away.
After adjusting to the very hard hitting and running style of their opposition, Orchard Park drew first blood as center Penny Lenard scampered into the try zone. Emily Henrich’s kick gave the the team a 7-0 advantage. Winger Sera Indelicato was the next to score, after a huge break by flanker Lizzy Honer, who later off-loaded to Henrich who then sent the ball to her big and fast wing. Henrich added another conversion try before the half was over, but Play Rugby was able to respond with a score to get on the board. OP went into half time with a 19-5 lead.
But the girls recalled that they had trailed at half time during the past two state championship matches – so they knew that Play Rugby would come out strong following the break.
Play Rugby did not disappoint, scoring two quick tries in the first minutes of the second half to chip away at OP’s lead. Nevertheless, the score never got closer than 19-15 as Henrich again scored, as did speedy full-back Mia Riccardi. The final nail in the coffin came in the form of a long run by Henrich which combined her speed, power and agility as she cut around defenders and broke through any tackle attempts.
While Orchard Park’s backs were responsible for all of the points scored, OP’s forwards pounded away at Play Rugby all day. Laura LaVigne, Hannah Riccardi, and Catherine Matre all had long runs that required multiple defenders to pull them down. Jamie King was all over the pitch – making tackles, rucking and repeatedly disrupting Play Rugby. Scrum half Frangelica Bautz and fly half Katie Niver bore the brunt of Play Rugby’s physicality, but remained composed and focused throughout the match. The defensive efforts of Ashley Walker and Hannah Pfalzer were also critical in keeping Play Rugby’s backs out of the try zone.
Orchard Park’s third consecutive New York State Championship was the pinnacle of a historic season for the club. In addition to defeating the defending Single School National Champion (St. Joseph’s Academy of Ohio) to start its season, Orchard Park invoked Rugby NY’s “mercy rule” (by scoring 40 unanswered points) by half time in all of its six league matches. Orchard Park also won the Can Am 7s, the first 7s tournament in which the team has ever competed.
Two weeks before winning the New York State Championship, Orchard Park also traveled to Elkhart, Indiana for the National Invitational Championship. OP was the 5th seed, but defeated the 4th (Warsaw, Indiana) and 2nd (Catholic Memorial) seeds en route to a 3rd place finish, only losing to National Champion Divine Savior Holy Angels, a Varsity program out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Orchard Park Class of 2017 was a special group of athletes. The club is eager to attract new athletes to fill the gaps the 14 member graduating class will leave and hope to continue to the success that has defined these rugby players’ high school careers.