LVI 2016 Day One: Falcons fly high above elite competition

LAS VEGAS - Both of the USA Falcons squads at the Las Vegas Invitational completed the first day of pool play undefeated Thursday, with the men sweeping their three-match slate and the women, sponsored by Penn Mutual, conceding just a single try in two victories.

The men's roster is made up of two athletes that represented the U.S. on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Wellington and Sydney a month ago - Matai Leuta and Thretton Palamo - as well as another four Eagles capped on the circuit.

Athletes that have worked with USA Rugby Olympic Development Academy programs such as Aaron Davis and Joey Sok (Tiger Rugby), as well as Tua Laei (Rugby Utah), have made their way into Men's Eagles Sevens High Performance Camps and past Falcons tours, and are working with the veterans and coaching staff to improve their standings in the Eagles' depth chart.

"You see some quality guys in this team," coach Nese Malifa said, "and it's great because it really boosts the new guys coming in. They fit very easily and get comfortable - it's not a long road to learn the system."

See Boys High School All-Americans' LVI schedule

ConRoy Smith scored a first-half try to match Leuta's in the Falcons' LVI-opening, 36-0, shutout of Florida RDA in the Americas Cup 7s division. Davis followed with a first-half score against France Development 7s after capped Eagle Pat Blair began the play with a line break in the second match. Captain Peter Tiberio created another opportunity with a quick tap prior to the end of the half and Jope Motokana set Palamo away for a 12-0 lead.

The developmental side of the Series' ninth-ranked nation struck back quickly in the second half to bring the difference to an unconverted try, but a 50-meter score from Palamo and stingy work on the defensive side of the ball led by Blair were enough to see out the 19-12 victory.

The Falcons went into the third match with a spot in the Cup Quarterfinals secure, but stumbled into the second half level at seven-all thanks to a late try from Tumatauenga. Coaches Malifa and Paul Holmes emptied the bench in the second half - short a player due to a Shalom Suniula injury - and the influences of players like Seth Halliman and Tua Laei kept the opponent from crossing midfield in the second frame. Smith's pace was on display in a try-scoring effort for the wing as the Falcons dotted down thrice in the final seven minutes of the day.

Men's Eagles Sevens Head Coach Mike Friday was in attendance for the team's matches outside Sam Boyd Stadium, and will take in Friday's Cup Quarterfinal prior to heading inside for the U.S.'s first match of HSBC USA Sevens.

"I think the biggest thing today was getting better as the day went on," Malifa said. "Throughout the three games I think we saw a lot of improvement.

"It's a jab in the face [to guys who were just on the Eagles to be selected to the Falcons], but that just means that someone worked harder than you did, and these guys have all worked hard for the last 18 months. Everyone wants to get on the Series. It's great competition, it's great depth, and hopefully we'll get a lot more guys from the Falcons on the Series."

The Falcons presented by Penn Mutual, coached by Jules McCoy, trotted out a few veterans of their own in the Women's Elite 7s division Thursday, including 15s Eagle Carmen Farmer and the likes of Series regulars Jessica Javelet and Kristen Thomas. Thomas and Nicole Heavirland, one of the newer residents at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., scored in the first half of the team's opening match against Brazil Women's 7s, a 36-0 shutout.

Thomas opened the scoring with a run to the corner in the second match against a Stars Rugby side, and a turnover caused by Farmer led to the Falcons moving the ball through hands to Richelle Stephens for a 12-0 lead. The wing again broke the gain line with a run before offloading to Ryan Carlyle for a try, and added her second prior to the end of the half for a 26-0 lead at the break.

The University of Central Florida alum would end up getting her third before the match was over, but the Falcons conceded a try for the first time on the day for a 40-5 scoreline.

"The girls went out and did the things we asked them to do [against Brazil]," coach Chris Ryan said. "And then they went out and did the same things we asked them to do [in the second match], with a little hiccup in the middle of the second half, then bounced back from it and held them out for the rest of the game."

Much like the men, the women's team in Las Vegas has a few players who were just on the Series. The mix of those experienced players with young blood like Meya Bizer and Heavirland has seen the Falcons through to the Cup Quarterfinals, though they still have a pool match to play Friday.

"There's always more to work on - you can always find something," Ryan said. "We have this, the Vancouver Festival next week, then Atlanta and Vancouver Series stops. It's about getting everybody who's been training time to see what they bring to the table and getting everybody a chance to play.

"You can play and run around all you want at the Olympic Training Center but, until you get in a real game, you can't really tell what people have. It's great to have these tournaments."

The Falcons presented by Penn Mutual will finish pool play against South Africa Select Friday, March 4, at 8:40 a.m. PT.

USA Falcons | Las Vegas Invitational

Pat Blair

Aaron Davis - 1823 / Tiger Rugby

Seth Halliman - Central Washington University

Tua Laei - Brigham Young University / Rugby Utah

Ben Leatigaga - U.S. Army World-Class Athlete Program

Matai Leuta

Jope Motokana - Seattle Saracens

Thretton Palamo

ConRoy Smith

Joey Sok - Columbus Rugby Club / Tiger Rugby

Shalom Suniula

Peter Tiberio (C)

USA Falcons | Las Vegas Invitational

v. Florida RDA - W 27-0

v. France Development - W 21-12

v. Tumatauenga - W 24-7


USA Falcons sponsored by Penn Mutual | Las Vegas Invitational

1. Carmen Farmer

2. Meya Bizer

3. Kate Zackary

4. Ashley Perry

5. Nicole Heavirland

6. Irene Gardner

7. Ryan Carlyle

8. Hunter Griendling

9. Richelle Stephens

10. Jessica Javelet

11. Kristen Thomas

12. Naya Tapper

USA Falcons sponsored by Penn Mutual | Las Vegas Invitational

v. Brazil Women's 7s - W 36-0

v. Stars Rugby 2 - W 40-5

v. South Africa Select - Friday, March 4 @ 8:40 a.m. PT