KV girls rugby emerges from uncertain start, makes state semifinals

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Friday, May 18, 2018 | 9:48 PM


Bayla Shindledecker was stressed out in the days leading up to Kiski Valley girls rugby's first match of the spring.

Lauren Ryan was fearful of what the season would become.

It was understandable for them to feel that way because they were about to go into their opener against Woodland Hills with 13 girls, two players short of a full lineup.

But they left the field after Game 1 with a different feeling: hope. Even though they were shorthanded, the Titans came back to win 36-27 and set the tone for the season.

The team got more players, and it kept winning. And for the third year in a row, Kiski Valley is in the state semifinals.

The No. 2-seeded Titans play No. 3 Gettysburg at 3:45 p.m. Saturday in the Club Division II semifinals at Cumberland Valley. The winner plays the Chambersburg/West Shore United winner in the championship Sunday.

“I'm so happy with how far our team has come since the beginning of the season,” said Shindledecker, the forwards captain. “At the beginning of the year, I didn't even imagine making it back to states, and now that we're here, it's pretty amazing.”

Kiski Valley is the lone club to bring its boys and girls team to the state finals this weekend.

“On Day 1, I was just hoping we could win a couple games and maybe keep some matches close. Now we want to come home with a state title,” Ryan said. “We hope the boys team can win, too, so we can bring it home on both ends.”

Kiski Valley (4-1) lost in the state finals the last two years and, after last season, lost the core of the team. Nine players graduated, and three more had to leave because of other commitments, leaving the program searching for players.

After the early-season win, some of the girls convinced friends to try out. Soon, they were up to 18 players, and Titans coach Erica Houlihan noticed quickly the girls on the team were athletic and dedicated. It's something she saw in the past teams.

“The girls did all of the legwork,” Houlihan said. “They got the interest out there. All of them are super athletic, and they're rugby smart. I keep getting lucky every year. I keep thinking that eventually my luck has to run out, but it hasn't yet, which is pretty great.”

With new players outnumbering the veterans, the challenge for Houlihan, her captains and her coaching staff was teaching a game foreign to many on the fly. Shindledecker, who will attend West Chester, and overall team captain Lily Kastelic, who will attend West Virginia, took the forwards aside and worked with them, and Ryan helped the backs become accustomed to passing the ball backward and eliminating any illegal forward passes.

Kastelic, whom Houlihan said the team affectionately nicknamed “Billy,” has been the team's backbone. Her strength and rugby sense have been major pluses on the field and in practice helping players get up to speed.

“She's the ultimate when it comes to rugby knowledge,” Houlihan said. “I make jokes all the time that if I had the rugby IQ that Lilly had when I was in college with the body that I had, I could've been an All-American player. She understands the very technical pieces of the game that a lot of people don't understand. She's very well-read in the sport, and she has athletic ability behind that. She just never quits.”

Shindledecker and Ryan were convinced they would be good after the first win, but for Houlihan, the belief really kicked in after a 22-17 comeback win over an experienced West Shore United team. It was a major test, and the Titans passed.

“It was then that I saw we could change up our strategy based on who we were playing,” Houlihan said. “I didn't know if the girls were capable of that since they were all so new, and that's when I knew that we could go somewhere. It's nice to continually be able to say that, but I didn't think I was going to be able to say that this year. It took me by surprise that they've been such a powerhouse.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.

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