With the clock showing all zeroes in the men’s final of The PR7s Inaugural Championship, the Loggerheads leading by a single score, the Experts in possession, the play-by-play announcer was literally calling for two-time Olympian and World Rugby Player of the Year Perry Baker to get the ball on one touchline. Instead, it was the All-Pac-12 defensive end from Washington State bulldozing the UCLA sprinter and evading the outstretched fingertips of the University of Hawaii linebacker on the other that forced overtime.
The scintillating stalemate unboxed the league’s overtime rules in front of a national television audience on FS2, marrying the drama of soccer’s penalty shootout with rugby’s drop goal. Both teams picked three players to alternate uncontested kicks from the 22, and the Experts walked off winners thanks to the lone make by Luis Turbyfield.
The women’s final featured five Olympians. Kristen Thomas, who missed Rio 2016 with a broken leg before making her Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, scored twice for the hometown Headliners.
And the pride of Eagle River, Alaska, Alev Kelter, had 13 points in the final for the Loonies, named after the loon, a waterbird indigenous to her home state. Kelter is the former two-sport letterman at Wisconsin, having been both an NCAA Frozen Four All-Tournament pick in Hockey and an All-Big-Ten selection in soccer.
Thomas and Kelter were overshadowed by little Delaney Aikens from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Nearly a scratch thanks to an ankle injury she’d suffered in training earlier in the week, Aikens hobbled her way to two tries in the championship game, helping the Loonies lift the first-ever trophy for professional women’s rugby in North America.
All that drama packed into just the final two games of the tournament, to make nothing of the rest of the action at Autozone Park feet off of Beale Street in Memphis or the week of preparation and community activation with the inescapable feel of history being made.
Before Premier Rugby Sevens, women hadn’t been paid to play pro rugby in North America, nor anywhere in the world had they been paid to play pro 7s. To be a part of it, they drove to open tryouts in Charlotte and Memphis from as far away as the shadows of the Empire State Building in New York, the oil fields of Oklahoma, and the waving wheat of Kansas, flying in from Colorado, California and every corner of the country.
Plucked from obscurity, much the way Kit and Dottie found their way to the diamond in Rockford from the dairy farm in Oregon in A League of Their Own, these women rubbed shoulders with Kelter, Thomas, and the other Olympians they aspired to someday be. They also balanced the weight of being pioneers and the joy of signing their own shirsey for the first time.
They formed team identities. Kelter went as far as teaching herself and her teammates how to call for an actual loon in the wild using nothing but the hands and mouth, and their coaches going as far as promising tattoos in exchange for a title. The Loonies made good, though it’s unconfirmed if their coaches did, and the history books will forever call them inaugural champions.
But from the first day of those open tryouts to those spent introducing rugby to a new generation at Girls, Inc., an organization dedicated to inspiring women to be strong, smart, and bold, to the post-tournament singalongs on the buses to and from Beale, you get the sense everyone’s identity was more attached to what all four women’s teams accomplished as a group than any single one.
The smell of opportunity wafted over the whole stadium during that inaugural championship, pairing nicely with the smell of smoked meat that’s never too far from the olfactory in Memphis, as well as the equally intoxicating sound of a local drumline.
For women’s rugby, the opportunity was exploring a new frontier. For the uninitiated, it was the chance to see the most electrifying sport on Earth up close and personal with some of the best talent in the world as tour guides. For the league, it was the opportunity to move the idea from paper to the pitch. For many of the athletes, it was for a foothold in their personal journey toward the Olympics.
For two of the men’s Headliners, Calvin Gentry and Donovan Norphlet, the opportunity was a homecoming. Both products of Memphis Inner City Rugby, PR7s’ local grassroots partner with the mission of closing the opportunity gap in under-resourced neighborhoods, they were high school teammates who went on to have standout careers at rival collegiate rugby powerhouses.
With their friends, family, and former coaches and teammates in the stands, and for Gentry, who now coaches MICR, pupils, they made their professional debuts.
For a young unknown like Jabaree Leopold, Memphis was the opportunity to prove he belonged. Since putting away his track cleats to pick up a new sport in rugby at Iowa Central Community College, the St. Louis native has chased the egg-shaped ball across the grassroots pitches of the Midwest to stints in New Zealand and South Africa, hoping to accrue a resume worthy of his big break, which PR7s came to be.
Without a name tag, none of his teammates would have recognized Jabaree in the hotel lobby on Monday. By Saturday, he’d earned a spot in the Loggerheads’ starting lineup for the final, alongside some of the best in the world, like two-time Olympian Martin Iosefo and USMNT captain Kevon Williams.
The same could be said for Royaal Jones, who flew from New Jersey to Memphis for the open trials, stood anonymously in Perry Baker’s shadow in the Experts’ first team huddle. By the final, he was running out of the tunnel shoulder-to-shoulder with Baker in the starting lineup.
Before Memphis, Coleson Warner was the skinny kid from Idaho swimming in his scrum cap, having trouble being recruited to play college ball. For the heavily stacked Team, he was expected to sit behind Tom Isherwood, already capped for Canada’s national team, and Jerome Nale, a promising up-and-comer in the USMNT setup.
When Nale fractured his elbow early in the competition, Warner stepped in, earning his way onto the tournament Dream Team. Warner’s efforts in Memphis netted him his first-ever national team camp invite, alongside Logan Tago, that Experts’ All-Pac-12 defensive end, and the Loonies’ Akinola Raymond.
Tago has since made his international debut, scoring his first-ever try for the USA in Dubai in November. Experts teammate Noah Bain has also signed with the Canadian National Team since his pro debut in Memphis.
For PR7s, the question of what’s in store for 2022 looms larger with each passing day. When? Where? How many tournaments?
While one word can’t provide a comprehensive answer, for now, let’s just settle with MORE. More of all of that stuff from the debut of PR7s as we look ahead to their official launch later this year. Stay tuned.
By Pat Clifton