By Mark Janzen
There’s a place on Adams Avenue in San Diego where rugby meets coffee. It’s magical.
It’s been mentioned in this space before.
Hawthorn Coffee. It’s the one with the rugby ball adorned with signatures from USA’s women’s Rugby Sevens side. The barista knows this is the team’s happy place. On a drizzly mid-week afternoon, it acts like a cozy living room, as American stars Ilona Maher, Nicole Heavirland, Cheta Emba, and Alev Kelter kibitz about everything rugby and otherwise.
Dating back to the final tournament of the 2018-19 season in Biarritz, France, and the opener of the 2019-20 campaign in Glendale (October 5-6), the Eagles have now lifted the Cup on back-to-back occasions. With their win in Glendale, they sit atop the HSBC Women’s Sevens Series standings as the circuit heads to Dubai (December 5-7).
This is where we start.
Ilona Maher: “I think we just want to keep building on what we’ve done. After winning in Biarritz, we built off that in Glendale. Now we’ve been focusing and refining what we did in Glendale and see if we can carry that on.”
What did you take away from winning in Glendale?
IM: “It wasn’t always perfect in Glendale. We lost to France (in pool play), but we didn’t get down by that. We’re never going to have a perfect tournament. Even when we won in France (last year), we almost lost to Fiji on Day 1. Having those little hiccups helps us a bit.”
Alev Kelter: We put pressure on ourselves and that’s when we thrive. We really put a lot of emphasis on staying present and that ‘next task’ mentality. Even though there was a lot of pressure around the Glendale tournament, we didn’t feel it going in.”
Nicole Heavirland: “Every tournament we learn something as a team. I’m almost excited to learn something in Dubai or Cape Town.”
AK: Yea, what are we going to overcome? What’s the next thing?
NH: It’s not easy, but we somehow find a way, so it’s kind of exciting.
So what did you learn in Glendale?
NH: “Not to be overconfident. We were focusing on just the moment.”
AK: “There is a lot of gravity in how you say things. We really broke down the way we were speaking to each other in warmups and how that led into the game. In our debrief after losing against France, we dissected how we were speaking and our tact. [Coach] Warren [Abrahams] has been talking about the devil is in the detail and finding it and being uncomfortable in it. I’m excited to see what Dubai brings. We’re adding new plays and things like that, which are going to be fun for us to grow and build off.”
So, after the loss against France on Day 1 in Glendale, I understand you all had a bit of a frustration-releasing scream in the players-only van after the game. What happened?
NH: “It was actually a pretty cool moment.”
Cheta Emba: “I think we were all acknowledging we were frustrated with how the game went and how the game ended. But, at the same time we knew we couldn’t dwell on it and keep going in circles. It was a checkpoint in the tournament. We could either take it on the chin and rise or sulk and fizzle out.”
Who’s idea was it to scream?
AK: “I think it was Jordan (Gray-Matyas) and then Abby (Gustaitis) and Lauren (Doyle) who kinda thought we should do it.”
CE: “Yea, then after screaming, we were like, maybe one more.”
(They all laugh, but in reality, it did seem rather therapeutic.)
Now Let’s talk about that final play against Canada to send your team to the semifinals. Canada had just scored to take a 26-22 lead. On what would be the last play of the game, Emba grabbed the kickoff clean out of the air and ran the distance for the match-winning try.
IM: “Being on the sideline, I wasn’t even worried about it. They scored, but I was actually excited. We get the ball back automatically. You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect play to end the game.”
AK: “Shoot, we didn’t even set a ruck.”
IM: “I know when Cheta snatched it out of the air – that’s what she loves to do in practice – we were just going crazy. She’d been playing so much in the game and to see that final burst of energy and score that – we were going wild.”
AK: “In practice, she’s been perfecting the timing and the jump. And for that to come to fruition was a testament to how much she works on getting better. It was just awesome.”
NH: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but Cheta played the entire game. Did you Cheta?”
CE: (Doesn’t remember).
(Heavirland was right. Emba played the whole game and also scored in the second minute).
NH: “She just finished the game so strong.”
CE: “I was a little bit on edge. But everyone was directing where we needed to go and we just trusted that and went with it. For me, it was blinders on.”
You’ve beaten New Zealand in each of the past two tournaments. They’ve been the team to beat in recent years. How do you approach playing top teams like that now?
AK: “We want to be that team that people are like: ‘shoot, I don’t want to play the U.S.’ That’s going to come from us learning and growing and always trying to be the best.”
IM: “I’ve noticed a change. We used to practice to play New Zealand. Now, we just practice to play any team and practice to be the best ourselves.”
AK: “That’s a huge shift in how we are doing things. It’s so much more consistent for us and it brings us confidence. We potentially could be the best in the world, so if we have that potential, why don’t we play and practice like that.”
CE: “It’s also a testament to the circuit itself. It’s Sevens. Anything can happen. Every team is growing every season. We’re focused on our standard and what we’re going to do.”
And is that a different feeling than in previous seasons?
CE: “Yeah, for sure.”
AK: “Our staff and our team have really made an effort to build a culture that is focused on enhancing how we can be present and maximize that. When we’re the most present, we’re the most successful at realizing what’s the next thing. Then you go into autopilot and you just play.”
How has the addition of Warren Abrahams to the coaching staff helped change this?
AK: “Warren has jumped on board to help us be uncomfortable, and he’s throwing all these games at us in practice and forcing us to problem-solve. It’s been tremendous and when you perform, you have the belief that things are working. Now the world is seeing our progress, but we knew we had progress before the world has seen it.”
NH: “He’s bringing us to the next level. He’s making us problem-solve on the go. He gives us information on the go on the practice field and we have to figure it out. He’ll give you distractions and you have to hone in on the task at hand. He’ll use different size balls – all sorts of things.”
IM: “He’ll have us use a hand ball. When that red ball comes out, we’re like, what the heck is next?”
AK: “The lack of information is huge because in the games you have to read and react and adapt.”
NH: “We’re working on being comfortable when we’re uncomfortable.”
And with Chris Brown in his second year as the head coach, how has he helped build this team up?
NH: “When he first came on, it was all about team unity and the culture of the team and our values. It’s really special to be on tour with him. It’s like a family.”
IM: “There were some times last year, when I was like ‘this is it, I can’t play rugby.’ He would throw out so much weird stuff that would just cause us to learn. Brownie actually cares for us and genuinely wants us to succeed.”
CE: “It’s pretty cool how intense of a coach Brownie is, and that goes hand in hand with how intense of players we are and how much we want to get details right and how high his standards are. But he’s also brought a message of having grace for yourself and for each other as you try to meet and surpass those standards. It’s not a compromise. We want to make progress, but if we’re not making progress, we need to figure out why, but also remember we are works in progress. That’s been huge for the culture as well as the play.”
The Olympics are still a long way off, but in some regards, they’re right around the corner. How are you all looking at this being an Olympic year.
NH: “One thing we were asked the other day, was ‘Is it more important for you to be an Olympian or for the team to medal?’ They do go hand in hand.”
AK: “You need a bit of both.”
NH: “We’re still going to dive a little deeper into that. It’s something that we’re going towards.”
AK: “I think individually, we’ve all thought about it. Collectively, we know that we want this team – and whoever is on the roster – to win a medal and not just a medal but a gold medal. I think we’re turning over all the rocks and really honing in on that idea of staying present.”
IM: But what matters is the next tournament and that’s Dubai. If you’re playing rugby just to go to the Olympics, you’re doing the wrong thing. Get off the pitch now. We’re here to grow rugby in the U.S. and leave a legacy. The Olympics are going to be great, but for right now, it’s about the present.”
AK: “The acronym is B.R.A.V.E. and we talk about being brave in our intent.”
What does B.R.A.V.E. stand for?
IM: “Be a good blueberry.” (based on the idea that one bad blueberry can ruin a whole batch)
NH: “’R’ is respect and relentless.
CE: “Aware, Authentic, Accountable”
IM: “’E’ is enjoy the process, which is something we’re working on every day.”
CE: “We’ve whole meetings on each letter to come to a common understanding and definition of what the words would be and what they meant for us as a team.”
How does all of this play a part in you all helping to grow the game of rugby?
CE: “Glendale was huge. It gave me chills. Not only young girls, but young boys and adults – men and women – were there to support us and really engage in the game.”
AK: “It’s growing and those girls are going to be in our pathway program soon, and it’s so exciting to see that they’re going have this experience that we maybe wish we had earlier in life, and we’re so blessed that we can help pave that way. But, we also remember all the people who paved the way for us in women’s rugby.”
IM: “I don’t even think we realize the impact we could possibly have. Girls are looking up to us and they think we’re cool. I mean, I think we’re kinda cool. But the girls and boys actually think we’re really cool. We can use that for the better.”
AK: “We talk about holding a gold standard. And that’s not just how we play but how we hold ourselves. For me, it’s the whole package. You want to inspire and unite a nation and it starts individually by playing for your ‘why.’”
All four were recently named to USA’s squad for the second round of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Dubai.