- Jackie Finlan
Stroughter is one of several Old Blue players doubling up with the Northeast Academy this summer.
In its short existence, Old Blue has experienced a little bit of triumph, a little bit of heartache. In its debut year, Old Blue advanced to 2014 club 7s final, but in its sophomore year, the New York City team's run ended at the Northeast semifinals. Year three is marked by returners eager to eradicate the sting of 2015, and they're complimented by a surging roster and ample, internal competition.
When Old Blue coach Gary Heavner rejoined his team, he and the staff were pleased to see that players were already 7s fit. That advantage played out during last weekend's Monmouth 7s, the first Empire Downstate qualifier, in which Old Blue entered two sides. Both teams advanced to the final for a one-two finish. New York finished third, followed by host Monmouth, Village Lions and Brooklyn.
“She plays five times better and smarter than she practices,” Heavner praised. “She’s a bigger girl but has speed when she needs it. She’s a beast at the breakdown, and she kicks sometimes, too. But she was a surprise only because she’s new.”
When the roster is at full strength, Old Blue will theoretically be able to field three sides, barring injuries and national assemblies.
“I’m a pretty good recruiter, but I didn’t have to cold-call anyone,” Heavner said of the influx. “Coaches send people to us, players have friends on teams – that’s where 99% are coming from.
“But we don’t want to become an all-star team,” Heavner clarified. “Half of the ones coming to New York actually live here but go to college elsewhere – we have a lot of college players. With the exception of three players, everyone lives within an hour of the city.”
Old Blue has a symbiotic relationship with the Northeast Academy, and shares players, coaches and to an extent, philosophy. The National Development Academy (NDA) requires its New York, Boston and Buffalo members to simultaneously compete with a local club, a mandate that feeds talent back into the community and gives the unions a return on their financial contributions.
Heavner indicated that 11-12 players are members of Old Blue and the Northeast Academy, and both entities are focused on developing local players for the elite level. Dual members attend an NDA practice on Monday, and Old Blue sessions Tuesday and Thursday.
“We’re not really replicating the Academy, to be honest,” said Heavner, who is also a Northeast Academy coach. “I’m worrying about peaking in seven weeks. The Academy doesn’t have a tournament until December, so they’re breaking it down to the most basic levels. They’re two different mindsets.”
Old Blue will also rely on New York Rugby Club to stay sharp this summer. There is some crossover there between 15s and 7s players transferring registrations for the summer, and the pair are each other’s best competition on the Empire circuit.
“We played them three times at Monmouth, and they beat us one time,” Heavner said. “Week in and week out, New York is our competition, but we have a good relationship. We have a joint scrimmage/practice session this week.”
There is a bit of a gap between the rest of the Empire teams, and Heavner is hoping that this weekend’s trip to Danbury, Conn., will lure some New England teams south.
“The field is a mixed bag of teams still figuring out where to be,” Heavner reflected on the Empire Downstate opener. “Some had good systems, but the players weren’t executing them yet. Some had good athletes but they were playing individually, still trying to find a system that works for their team. All the teams are starting up O.K., and they’ll get better.”
The Northeast championship will occur on July 16 in Saratoga Springs at the Saratoga Sevens, and the top two teams will move onto nationals.