By Peggy Shinn | July 20, 2018, 10:33 p.m. (ET)

Members of the U.S. women’s rugby team celebrate in a huddle at the Rugby World Cup Sevens on July 20, 2018 in San Francisco. 

 

SAN FRANCISCO — The USA Women’s Eagles Sevens rugby team has never played in the World Cup championship final. Tonight, the team made a run in that direction. The U.S. women overcame Russia’s defense and beat them in the quarterfinals, 33-17. 

Russia was seeded fourth in the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018, the U.S. fifth.

And they did it without veteran and top scorer Alev Kelter, who is still healing from an undisclosed injury suffered at the end of the 2017-18 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. Kelter was the top scorer for the U.S. at the Rio Olympic tournament in 2016 — and the first woman ever to score a try at the Olympic Games. Before she was injured, she scored 18 tries this season, second only to teammate Naya Tapper, who scored 26 in the five-stop World Rugby sevens series.

The Americans even held off Russia with only six women on the field after team captain Nicole Heavirland received a penalty and spent two minutes in the “sin bin.”

The U.S. women’s play in the round of 16 and quarterfinals underscored how far the sevens program has come in the past few years.

“The game keeps getting faster,” said 2016 Olympian Lauren Doyle with a laugh, then added, “I feel like we’ve now meshed better and we understand our roles.” 

Doyle scored a try earlier in the day in the round of 16 match against 12th-ranked China, which the U.S. won 38-7.

Joining veterans like Doyle, Kelter and Ryan Carlyle, who is the only player on the squad who competed at the 2013 World Cup sevens (when the U.S. finished third), are several women who learned to play rugby in college. Like Tapper, Abby Gustaitis, Ilona Maher and Cheta Emba, who all scored tries against Russia.

Tapper was a high school track sprinter but decided to focus on academics at the University of North Carolina. UNC has a club rugby team, so Tapper decided to give it a try. Collegiate club sports are generally more low-key than Division I track and field programs. 

“I’ve always been a very heavy contact girl growing up, so I went and tried out, and it obviously worked for me,” said Tapper, who used speed and fast footwork to score once in the round of 16 match against China and twice in the quarterfinal against Russia.

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Emba, who scored two tries against China and one against Russia, discovered rugby at Harvard University, where she played goalkeeper in soccer for four years. She played varsity her senior year at Harvard, then made the national team in 2015 after graduation. She was a traveling reserve for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team and a member of the 2017 Rugby World Cup (15s) team that finished fourth.

Maher is the newest member of the team. In the quarterfinal, she scored her first World Cup try — and third try in international competition. She made her international debut in May shortly after graduating with a nursing degree from Quinnipiac College in Connecticut.

For Maher, just walking out on the field for the World Cup was “surreal.” She had never really considered playing rugby after college and only took up the sport five years ago.

A multisport athlete at Burlington High School in Vermont, Maher started in the spring of her senior year in high school — as a break from soccer.

Her father, a long-time rugby player, said fine. But she had to find something else to fill her time.

“I was like, all right, let me try rugby,” she said.

Maher joined the club program at a rival high school, then played for a year at Norwich University, also in Vermont, before transferring to Quinnipiac. In 2017, she received the MA Sorenson Award as the top collegiate rugby player.

With such strong new talent, it can be hard to distinguish the veterans from the newer members of the national sevens team.

“I’ve been playing for eight years now, and I know a lot of the girls coming up through the program have also been playing for eight years, but they’re five years younger,” said Carlyle, who’s 28. “Their rugby IQ is just as high, and their experience is the same.”

“As you can see, [Maher] comes off the bench and is making massive impact,” Carlyle added. “That’s what we love.”

Even with new talent stepping up, Kelter has not been far from the USA Eagles’ hearts.

Tapper had “Alev” written on the white athletic tape holding together two fingers on her left hand.

“I usually don’t write people’s names on my tape,” said Tapper. “But for her, she’s the one who I grew up on this team playing with and learning beside. So to not have her is obviously a big disappointment.”

“But we’re coming out here and doing what we need to do for her,” added Tapper. “We’re here to make her proud and make the world proud.”

The U.S. women will play top-ranked New Zealand in the semifinals on Saturday. The Kiwis are the defending World Cup sevens champions. They have scored 16 tries in their first two matches at the 2018 World Cup sevens — and kept their opponents scoreless.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.