It has been over a decade since a Catholic Memorial (CMH) or Divine Savior Holy Angels (DSHA) varsity 15s side has lost to another team in Wisconsin. Aspiratationally, becoming good enough to challenge these teams is the ultimate goal for the rest of the state. This season Hamilton was able to accomplish this goal with their 53-7 win over CMH, winnng their conference for the first time in school history. It is also the first time in WGR history, since the league moved to a two-conference format over a decade ago, that a team other than CMH or DSHA won a conference title. In every previous 15s season, Hamilon has either been in a conference won by CMH or lost to CMH in the playoffs.
Who is Catholic Memorial?
Catholic Memorial is one of the oldest teams in the league, starting in 1997. They twice finished in second place at the national championships (2018 & 2019) and have won three state championships in 15s rugby, including their 2022 15s state championship.
The first generation of Hamilton players have almost a mythical description of their CMH counterparts. Morgan Price (’19) viewed them as a flawless team. “It seemed like CMH was just good at everything: marking up, making plays, finding gaps, knowing the ins and outs of the game! That’s what made them so tough to play – seamless and knowledgeable.” Lauren Leonardi, who capatined the team’s first game, a scrimmage against CMH, noted that this was what made playing them special. “[CMH] games definitely meant more than others. It always felt like our chance to prove ourselves. They (and DSHA) were our closest competition; although, they were definitely more advanced than us. It was our chance to play to a higher level. Losing to them always felt more defeating, but also provided more drive to keep improving to be able to play like them one day.”
Modern Hamilton players had similar assesments of the CMH rugby program. Meghan Rank (’22) said they “have great knowledge of the game,” Olivia George (’22) said their ” intensity and fervor throughout the entire game made them difficult to compete with,” Ronny Ruedinger (’22) noted they were ” strong on defense,” and Grace Strelow (’22) called playing them “frustrating.”
Hamilton Head Coach Katie “Mac” McNeil also had nice things to say about the Crusaders: “They are a well coached program that lives the standards of a successful high level team. You can always expect CMH to be fundamentally sound, intense, and physically aggressive. They have set the expectations of championship rugby in Wisconsin for a long time, and we have learned so much from our experiences with them over the last six years. They have always been willing to provide guidance and advice to our growing program.”
Fall 2017 | Help Getting Started
That guideance started from the beginning. Former CMH Head Coach John “Wally” Waliszewski, was instrumental in getting Hamilton what they needed to join the league, and when Hamilton’s jerseys weren’t ready for the start of their first season, CMH lent their old jerseys to the Chargers for a pre-season game against CMH JV and another against Brookfield.
Fall 2017 | Scrimmage, 48-0 Loss to CMH JV
Shown here, Captain Lauren Leonardi (’19) gets buried in a sea of Crusader blue. Hamilton played their first full scrimmage against CMH’s JV side. They were able to shut out the Crusaders for the first 15 minutes, but were eventually overcome. Check out the game story here.
Reflecting on her games against CMH Leonardi noted, “I mostly remember their confidence more than their play. Obviously their fundamental rugby skills were more advanced than ours, but I just remember it being so difficult to even feel like we could compete with them when they had so much more confidence in their abilities and their strengths over ours.”
Fall 2017 | Regular Season, 89-5 Loss to CMH
Hamilton got their first chance at beating the CMH varsity team in a regular season contest held behind Templeton Middle School. The result was a big loss for the Chargers, but it did produce the first try in Hamilton history, scored by Alex Werra (’19). Werra capitalized off her own uncalled intentional knock on, but no one on the Hamilton sideline was too disappointed by it. Check out the game story here. Werra would finish her career as the highest scoring Charger in team history until that record was broken by Meghan Rank (’23) in 2021.
“Before our games against CMH, I was always like ‘oh great here we go, this is going to be a long 60 minutes.'” Werra explained. “I remember them having quick ball movement that made defending them really tough. When we were on offense, CMH applied constant pressure, and they never hesitated in tackling. Getting a breakaway through their defensive line was one of the only ways we could get yards on them.”
Hamilton was able to gain some confidence after the game when the Chargers JV 7s side defeated CMH JV, 22-5. It was the first time Hamilton played any division of 7s rugby.
Spring 2017 | James Foley Memorial 7s, First Taste of 7s
Hamilton’s first foray into varisty 7s occured at the CMH-hosted James Foley Memorial tournament. While the team didn’t play CMH, a new tradition was started. After losing their first couple of games, Coach Barry told the girls he’d take them for root beers at John’s Root Beer stand if they won their last game. With a 24-0 win over Madison, the team came off the field chanting “Beers on Barry” and the rest is history. Now anytime Hamilton plays on CMH’s football field, Coach Holloway buys the team root beer and hot dogs. Check out the game story here.
Summer 2018 | Lakefront 7s, 19-0 Loss to CMH
Hamilton participated in their first Lakefront 7s tournament, winning every game except for their game against CMH. They let CMH get out to 19-0 lead in the first half but held them scoreless in the second. The loss prevented Hamilton from playing in the playoff round. Check out the game story here.
2018 Fall | Pre-Season 15s, 68-0 Loss to CMH
Hamilton opened one of their best 15s seasons in team history with a 68-0 pe-season loss to CMH, which was an improvement on their 89-5 loss the previous season. The game was notiable as many “Hamilton greats” made their rugby debuts in this game: Savannah Landphier (’22), Madi Martinez (’22), Norah Miller (’22), Morgan Price (’19), and Savanna Thorne (’19). Check out the game story here. If there’s any question how much time Hamilton spent on defense, Thorne set a team record for most tackles in a game by recording 17.
Thinking back to their debuts, Miller explained that “it just felt as though they were good at everything. That’s what made them so tough to play—they were intimidating because of their history.” Price added, “[A]lthough it was defeating losing like we did, those games meant we were learning the game, learning our weaknesses…and knowing how to beat them…even if it came years later.”
2018 Fall | Pre-Season 7s, 12-5 Hamilton Win
But the team didn’t have to wait years to get some satisfaction against CMH. The next week CMH played Hamitlon in 7s on Grove Field after a football game featuring CMH and Hamilton. Check out the game story here.
“At first, our team was excited to play under the lights,” explained Coach Barry Holloway, “but when they saw the crowd of Hamilton students who stuck around to watch, they became very nervous. They thought of all the times CMH had blown them out in other games; they were worried it would happened again, but I’ve always equated that game to a mother who lifts car to save her child. What they pulled off, at the time, felt like a miracle.”
What they pulled off was 12-5 win in front of the home fans who responded by storming the field. Recent start-up Hamilton had just beaten the varsity 7s-side of the defending state 15s champions and national 15s runners-up, and it was clear this was a turning point for the program.
A slideshow of pictures from that great moment:
2018 Fall | State Semi-finals, 64-5 Loss to CMH
Coming off their pre-season 7s win, Hamilton had some confidence heading into their state semi-final contest against CMH. However, CMH scored a quick try to start the game, but Hamilton gained some energy off a long run by Morgan Price (’19) who was barely brought down by the CMH fullback. Unfortunaely, the inexperienced Hamilton team allowed some tries after sloppy play and entered the half down 21-0.
Despite being down, Hamilton players entered the halftime break celebrating. They never had entered a halftime against CMH where the game hadn’t completly gotten out of hand, and the Chargers were in a place where they still had a chance to win. The exuberance was amplifyed when Elise Rades (’21) scored a try to open the second half. With twenty minutes left in the game, Hamilton was only down two tries. But nerves and poor tackling doomed the inexperienced Chargers. Price got another long run, but she was pulled down by a dangerous high tackle from behind that Hamilton thought should have resulted in a penalty try and possibly a red card. Deflated by a couple of bad tries and the lack of a penalty try, the group started to let things spiral out of control before many of the varisty players were subbed for the JV side. Check out the game story here.
2019 Fall | 7s Scrimmage, (score unknown) Loss to CMH
CMH’s football team was featured as the team of the week and had their game locally televised. CMH invited Hamilton to play them in 7s at halftime. The game took place at Schneider Stadium, home of the Carroll University football team. After graduating so many players, Hamilton was unable to repeat the magic of their 7s win just a year prior.
2019 Fall | 15s Scrimmage, 39-0 Loss to CMH JV
Hamilton JV scheduled a game with CMH JV at Minooka Park to help both teams get more expereince for their younger players. For the seniors (’23) who would go on to defeat CMH for the first time, this was their first time playing the Crusaders.
These freshman are getting their first taste of CMH. Little did they know that come senior year, they would be the first Hamilton 15s side to defeat CMH.
2019 Spring | James Foley Memorial Tournament 7s, 27-5 Loss to CMH
Hamilton 7s greats Clara Hoeksema and Lakyn Graves made their rugby debut against CMH’s varsity 7s and also served as captains. Check out the game story here.
2019 Summer | Hamilton & CMH Players Invited to USA Rugby Camp
Despite many battles on the field, CMH and Hamilton are friendly off the field. Often playing along side each other for the Wisconsin All-Star team or at USA Rugby camp invites.
Fall 2020 | Scrimmage 7s, (score unknown) Loss to CMH
With the season canceled due to precautions involving the Covid-19 pandemic, Hamilton played a couple of scrimmages against CMH while masked. The first scrimmage was a 7s game after the CMH football game held at Waukesha North High School. It was a blowout loss for the Chargers who did not score a try. It would be the last time Hamilton would wear their “baby blue jerseys” in a high school competition. The color is now reserved for the alumni team.
Fall 2020 | Scrimmage, Varsity 15s 12-1 (tries) Loss to CMH & JV 10s 4-1 (tries) loss to CMH
The next day Hamilton hosted CMH for a varsity 15s game and JV 10s game. Because the pandemic canceled the season, no field goal posts were erected for these scrimmages. Ronny Ruedinger (’23) and Macey St. Louis (’24) scored for Hamilton. Two years later, both would feature in the team’s only 15s win against CMH.
Varsity 15s Scrimmage (Full)
JV 10s Scrimmage (Full)
2021 Spring | Spring Break Joint Practice
Since the schools shared Easter breaks, CMH invited Hamilton to practice with them so that both teams could have a full practice. It was a nice way for the teams to build camaraderie and for both the Hamilton players and coaches to get an idea of how “high achievement” teams were practicing.
2021 Regular Season, 26-24 Loss to CMH
With a chance for a perfect regular season and a conference championship on the line, Hamilton jumped out to 17-5 lead against CMH only to watch that lead slip away. Hamilton seemed to have scored the go-ahead try on the last play of the game, but confused by the field lined for football, Hamilton placed the ball too early and turned over posession to CMH with a knock-on as the Chargers tried to re-collect the ball.
Then a senior, Norah Miller (’22) felt it was one of the toughest losses of her career. “There felt like lots of outside pressure at last year’s game against them,” she explained, “which I think definitely got to us. Losing our last Fall match to them was so devastating. We were so close, but we just weren’t able to give that extra bit of effort in order to win the game. Lots of tears came from that loss.” Check out the game story here.
2022 Regular Season, 53-7 Win against CMH
Hamilton used a dominant first half and a hat trick from Grace Strelow (’23) to finally defeat a CMH varsity side in 15s rugby. In over a dozen games playing CMH, Hamilton had only scored 11 tries and most of those came in their 2021, 26-24, loss. On this day, they’d score nine. Check out the game story here.
How Hamilton Was Able to Win
Coach Katie “Mac” McNeil understood there could be lessons in their close loss to CMH and then DSHA in the playoffs. “We knew we needed to increase our rugby knowledge and game play if we wanted to compete with top teams in the state and the nation. As a coaching staff we needed to create a team environment that believed in the hard work we were putting in on and off the field.” McNeil credits the losses and experiences competing at Nationals in helping to get buy-in from her players. “Our players have been dedicated to learning the game, challenging themselves to be leaders, and great teammates. Because of this, our team has been able to grow and connect in ways a coach can only hope their team comes together. “
Captain Ronny Ruedinger (’23) agrees: “I think this season our team has more team chemistry. A lot of varsity [are seniors], and I think this has helped us a lot. We all get each other and don’t have that immediate divide of being in different grades. I’ve never felt closer with the girls on this team, and I think that has shown through our playing and how we are able to keep calm and work hard.”
McNeil argued that Nationals helped the team learned to play with “grit, passion, and energy” in ways that she hadn’t seen before. “We knew we had an opportunity to do something special this fall if we continued to take it day by day,” she added, “focus on being in the moment, and approaching everything we encounter as a team.”
One of the team’s mindset is focusing on staying composed. McNeil noted that their team mantra has been “‘never too high, never too low,’ meaning we are taking the ups and downs as they are, and we aren’t reacting strongly one way or the other.”
For Captain Meghan Rank, some of that focus and composure came in the belief that they finally had what it takes to win. “As a team, we really wanted to win this game. A big difference from last year to this year is that the majority of the team last year did not think we could beat CMH. This year, most, if not all, of the girls knew our abilities and knew what we were capable of.”
Captain Grace Strelow (’23) has also seen that in her teammates. “We just kept calm and controlled what we could. We never let our egos get too high, we stayed calm, cool, and confident in moments of chaos. We worked hard at practice and were always bringing each other up instead of putting each other down. We believed that we could, so we did.”
McNeil added, “We are keeping our minds focused on being good teammates, good leaders, and a family. We talked about being the change this year, we aren’t focused on what other teams in the league are doing, we are just happy to be building Hamilton rugby. We are keeping our minds positive about our growth and our journey. We appreciate and are grateful for the lessons that have shaped us into the team we are today.”
Alumni’s Thoughts on the Win
NORAH MILLER (’23)
I felt so proud of each and every girl on that team. I know that every single girl on the team worked so hard for it. I also felt so happy for Mac, Snooki, and Barry. They have worked so hard to make this team what it is today, and it’s because of them that we made history last weekend.
ALEX WERRA (’19)
I always knew our team had the capacity to beat them if we were more focused/organized, so I’m glad Hamilton was finally able to do it and proved that we really can compete with the “big dogs.”
As an alum, it feels AMAZING knowing the team beat CMH, and by such incredible margins. Absolutely fabulous job. CMH has always been a tough opponent, and to put numbers on them like they used to do to us is the ultimate redemption, even if the blue team wasn’t out there on the field.
LAUREN LEONARDI (’19)
Although I was not at the game this weekend, I feel such an strong feeling of pride. I honestly never would’ve imagined that this day would come and wish I could’ve been there to see it live. If I had anything to say to this current (winning) team, it would be thank you! Thank you for continuing to work hard to do the things we dreamt of doing as a team. Keep up the hard work and know that other players are watching and looking up to y’all, just like we used to do to them! Be proud.
MORGAN PRICE (’19)
PROUDDDDDDD – I barley even knew what rugby was when I started playing, and now we have a national presence. Keep up the hard work and the love for the sport; it’s truly given me a second family.
Current Players Thoughts on the Win
MEGHAN RANK (’23)
The night before playing CMH, I could not sleep. I could feel my heart pound as different scenarios flooded my mind about the game I was about to play. During the game, I felt confident. I felt calm. It seemed like our team flowed together. No one played as individuals. We all played together as a team. After the game, I was overwhelmed with emotion. This game is one of my greatest accomplishments in this sport. Our team has always been doubted, so it’s huge that we beat the state-winner from last year.
GRACE STRELOW (’23)
To be honest it felt like a fever dream when the final whistle was blown. I was completely overcome with joy and pride. I am prideful to be part of a team that strived for big goals and worked hard for them every practice and every game leading up to this one. Also, it was joyous because that had literally never been done before. So to literally create history is something that can’t even be put into words. I was also so happy for all the alumi girls that put in work years prior so that we could help them reach goals they had when they were in high school. During the game, I was focused on playing our game. As a team we played one of the best games together, I think we ever had. We had great team chemistry and worked our hardest. I was obviously nervous, but I was also confident in what we had built this year and years prior.
RONNY RUEDINGER (’23)
Beating them felt like a dream come true. My whole career it was said how CMH and DSHA were the leading teams of the state, and finally being able to beat them after three years of defeats has never felt better. I think this year a lot of girls really stepped up, and we proved to most of Wisconsin that we are not a team to take forgranted anymore.
LIV GEORGE (’23)
It felt amazing to crush CMH. It was a very emotional experience for everyone. I was in tears after the final play of the game. For years, our girls have been battling against this team, and we finally conquered them.
COACH KATIE “MAC” McNEIL
This is a huge win for our program, it’s something we have been waiting to give back to our alumni for a long time. We are so appreciative of the hardwork former players and coaches have given to this team. This team has always felt like a family, and that was evident when we joined the program in 2019. We are so happy for the girls, and we are incredibly proud of this team. We are led by an outstanding senior class who have been willing to give it all for these moments. We are excited to be sharing this journey with our young teammates, and we hope the lessons we are learning this season will impact our program for years to come.