By Stephen Sheehan, FRU PR and Content Manager
When it comes to rugby in the United States, there isn’t a bigger event than the Las Vegas Invitational. North America’s largest rugby tournament takes place right alongside the USA Sevens invitational rugby tournament that features domestic stars like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker as well as international legends like New Zealand’s D.J. Forbes, England’s Tom Mitchell and South Africa’s Cecil Afrika.
While many established stars will be on display, Vegas is also a place where aspiring ruggers can catch the eye of national team scouts and coaches. It’s for that reason that Ronnie Suarez, Steve Braunstein, Evan Haigh and the rest of the coaches, volunteers and staff from the Florida Rugby Union have collaborated to put together the best men’s and women’s squads to represent The Sunshine State in March.
After a competitive showing at last year’s event where they took home wins over Arizona Olympic Development Academy and Utah ODA, the coaches went back to the drawing board to formulate a plan that addressed the team’s weaknesses, which mostly surrounded the art form of passing. So far, the results are positive.
“After our LVI review of last year, we looked as what we needed to do and we decided to really push the fundamentals individually to each club team through the players involved in the program,” said Suarez. “The proof was in the past summer 7’s, as not only was it the best it had been in a long time but also the teams primarily consisted of two or three players involved in the FRU 7’s RDA. Those players coming back had not only improved individually but had also brought in other teammates who had developed their skills as well.”
Unlike last year where getting consistent numbers at the squad’s training sessions in Sebastian were a struggle, the turnout has been terrific for both the men’s and women’s sides this year. At a recent training session earlier this month, 41 men and 30 women battled muddy pitches and competed hard for coveted spots on their respective teams.
“The men’s pool has grown, which is making selections difficult,” said Braunstein, the FRU 7’s director. “It’s a nice problem to have one side but trying to make sure we make the right picks is stressful. The women’s pool is surprisingly large for this first year and the same challenge is being presented.”
The overall player pool includes representatives from 15 club teams as well as two Rugby League teams. On the men’s side, seven players have already been selected, including Damian Clemente (Miami RFC), Jonathan Halter (Gainesville), Jeffrey ‘Alaska’ Herron (Tampa Krewe) and Mateo Velazquez (Florida Internation University). Suarez has also been impressed by Jude Kermundu (Naples), Matt Coore (Indian River) and Hank May (Gainesville), who have made great strides over the past year.
On the women’s side, Haigh, Sandi Felke and Mark Bongo have been tasked with putting together the FRU’s first LVI women’s squad—a task that’s much easier said than done. Luckily, the numbers have continually improved at the Sebastian training sessions and there is a ton of optimism surrounding the program.
Though the Sunshine State doesn’t receive as much national recognition as it may deserve, the number of Florida natives who came up through the FRU 7’s program may change that. The brightest star is obviously national team speedster Perry Baker, but he’s not the only name worth mentioning. Kris Thomas has taken off as a member of the women’s national 7’s team, Peter Malcolm (Taravella High School/Wheeling Jesuit University) is making waves on the USA Falcons squad and Ashaunte Stroman (FIU) is playing both 15’s and 7’s for the USA Collegiate All-American squad.
Dana Meschisi (Florida State University), Victoria Folayan (Poinciana High School), Jessica Wooden (University of Florida) and Kim Semiglia (Weston) are all in the national mix at camps and training squads.
For both the men’s and women’s FRU 7’s teams, Vegas represents the chance to not only further individual interests but the state’s as a whole. As Florida rugby gains more attention on a national scale, the opportunities for scholarships, pro contracts and recruiting will only increase. With only one more training session in February, the competition for a roster spot is as tight as ever as the race to Vegas inches closer.