For the Thunder women’s rugby sevens team, the fall of 2019 was all about keeping their head in the game.

For instance, starting the OCAA Women’s Rugby Sevens Championship at Loyalist College on Nov. 2, in fourth place and ending the day in first was all about their mindset. It’s why they were able to beat Durham 24-14 in the finals

“That was a big focus this year,” said Leena King, human resource management student and forward on the team. “Not allowing anyone to get into our head and playing our game the way we practiced and knew how to play.”

The goal was to learn from their mistakes in their last season.

“Last year, we won every game with the mentality we were going to win still,” said King.

But then when it came to the final, the team lost to Humber. “We got into our heads, which allowed them to win,” King said.

This year, Humber ended up in fourth place. It was a full circle moment from the previous season.

“Going into the final tournament, we knew what we had to do,” said Leah Pedis, intensive massage therapy student and back on the team.

“We knew the mental part of how we played was the hardest,” Pedis said.

“We would let doubt creep into our minds. We would not play the game we practiced for the last month.”

The team was on and focused as they won each of their games during the final tournament.

“We did not stop fighting until the very end,” said Amy MacNeil, bachelor of early learning and community development and prop on the team.

“Which came out with a good reward we won gold, ” MacNeil said.

“Everyone worked very hard, we worked together as a team, and we were able to accomplish what we wanted.”

The development of the team has changed a lot since the first season. They started playing sevens in 2017.

“I remember our first season for sevens,” said Dan Gauthier, the women’s rugby coach. “It looked like we were trying to play fifteens, and eight people got lost and had not made it to the field.”

Sevens rugby consists of seven players on a field at once playing seven-minute halves with only five-player substitutions per team per game. Players have a two-minute break at halftime before the play the next seven-minute half.

Other critical elements to the development of the team have been the retention of athletes and coaching.

“The staff we have here I would say is the best in the league. We have someone who has a strong background in sevens,” Gauthier said.

“Sonny Raina, he was a huge asset to have.”

Raina is a national level coach for sevens, coaches with rugby Ontario and runs the regional rugby program in eastern Ontario.

“Bringing him in opened up our knowledge of the game. It helped the athletes, and it helped with recruiting wise for the pool of athletes, because of the connection with Raina,” Gauthier said.

A willingness to learn from mistakes has also helped the team improve on their game. After their undefeated season last year until the gold medal game.

“When you are winning, it can paper over mistakes that you are making, because you get focused on the result,” Gauthier said.

Each loss during the season, the team used an opportunity to look at ways to improve their game.

“The girls learned if we do not have self belief if we do not believe in ourselves that we can do this if you think you cannot, you will not,” Gauthier said.

“In the final tournament, they were willing to make the sacrifices and doing the hard work required to let their skills shine.”

Gauthier always knew the team could be with the talent on the team they could win a gold medal if they married the work ethic and self-belief with the talent they have.

“Hopefully, if we can keep up the pace and mentality, we can bring home another gold next year,” MacNeil said.