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By Jeff Pack
Staff Writer 

End of an Era: Craig Pinnell steps away from Fallbrook Girls Rugby Club


Last updated 6/25/2020 at 2:41pm

Craig and Marin Pinnell turned Fallbrook Girls Rugby Club into one of the most successful youth and high school sports programs in San Diego County history since founding the program in 2007. Marin stepped away a few years ago to spend time with the couple's daughter and Craig announced he was stepping down last Friday.

Craig Pinnell, who along with his wife Marin, founded Fallbrook Girls Rugby Club in 2007, announced Friday, June 19, that he was stepping down from the club in an email to players and parents.

Just two days before Father's Day, Craig said he wanted to spend more time with his family to watch his daughter grow up.

"I have decided to step out of coaching and running the club," Craig said in the email. "After spending this time with my family, I realize how much I have been missing each day, especially with Gwyndolynn growing up so fast.

"I have loved our rugby family which we started way back in 2007 to introduce this beautiful game, and I will continue to support your future endeavors. I thank you all for the fun times we have had, and the occasional bumps in the road, and I wish everyone the best for the future."

Craig and Marin spoke to Village News in a phone interview over the weekend.

"The main thing is not spending as much time (at home) and just watching her go through so many different stages growing up, it's like, 'Wow, I've missed like the last five years,'" Craig said. "I missed it, but I haven't – I feel like I need to and I want to spend more time with her. That's the one big motivating factor. The other thing is, I suppose, with this whole COVID thing, where's the end target? Where are we going with it? It seems like we're just dragging, dragging, dragging. It's so odd to get everybody excited and motivated, and then..."

The team had practiced twice in the week before Craig's announcement, preparing for a Summer 7s season that would ultimately be canceled last Thursday.

All those factors contributed to Craig's decision, including an opportunity to give the program the chance to start new.

"It might be different people getting involved, and I know they might want to do it a different way," he said.

His departure, along with Marin's almost three years ago, from the program signals an end to one of the most successful youth and high school programs in San Diego County's history.

Under the Pinnells, FGRC won five national championships from 2011-2015 and the club was runner-up two more times in 2016 and 2017. In an unorthodox pool-play tournament format utilized in 2018, the Warriors finished in fourth place. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all club season play was canceled. But earlier last fall, the Warriors claimed their second consecutive SCYR Southern California High School championship, going undefeated on the season.

Over the years, FGRC has won High School Girls California State Cup Championships in 2010 and 2013, the USA Sevens High School Rugby Challenge Champions in 2012 and were crowned U18 Girls Southern California Champions from 2010-2017.

In addition, FGRC U16 teams won the Girls Southern California Championships four times and U14 teams another seven times.

Simply said: Fallbrook Girls Rugby Club has been, for more than a decade, the top youth girls rugby program in the United States.

Internationally, three FGRC alumni have competed for the USA Women's Eagles 7s team – Richelle Stephens, Lilly Durbin and Kayla Canett – with Stephens competing in the first-ever USA 7s team to compete in the Olympic Games in Brazil in 2016. Canett also was a member of the USA Women's Eagles 15 side that competed at the Rugby World Cup in Ireland in 2017 and is still a member of the Eagle's 7s Player Pool.

Additionally, three more FGRC athletes have trained with and competed for Mexico's Women's Sevens teams since 2014 when Jamie Garcia joined the team in Canada for training, followed by Karmin Macedo Navarrete and Michelle Navarro in 2018. Navarrete competed with the team at the 2018 HSBC Women's Seven Series in Hong Kong, at the World Cup in San Francisco and the HSBC Women's Sevens Series in Glendale, Colorado, in 2018.

Since 2009, 35 FGRC players went on to play in college, averaging more than three players every year moving on to colleges all over the country.

Three members of this year's graduating class – Abbey Savin (Dartmouth), Shelby Tippin (Queens) and Amanda Ware (Lindenwood) – have signed on to play rugby this fall.

When they began the program more than a decade ago, the Pinnells hadn't really considered their ability to affect the lives of so many girls in the Fallbrook area. As time went on, they began to see the impact.

"It was good to see how excited kids could get over something like that," Craig, who hails from South Africa but is now an American citizen, said. "Also, how they can take that and mold it into something that they could become good at and use it as leverage, I suppose, for college. It was like, 'Hey, I did this and now can you look at me? I was just one of those people with the grade-point average or whatever and now I've got this too, which is something different.' I think that that made it even more exciting for us that we could then offer that option."

Becoming a program that is essentially the benchmark for success in girls youth rugby at the high school level was a byproduct of their commitment to their athletes.

"It has given so many some unique options to look at during their lives, whether they choose to carry on with it or not," Craig said. "I think it's given them a good perspective of what's out there and what type of things are out there so that they could maybe choose different careers or life skills. The other main thing is just teaching them skills, skills for life. Not just rugby. They were learning things about life through rugby."

Navarro, who just graduated from Central Washington University this spring, is a prime example of what rugby and the Pinnells provided to her.

"I am so beyond grateful for everything they did to help me become a better version of myself," she said. "They pushed me to be the best I could be, they saw something in me that I didn't see in myself at the time and never gave up on me. They both taught me a lot about rugby and life and I really couldn't have gotten where I am without their help.

"They helped so many people and made a huge impact in a lot of their lives as well. I really can't thank them enough for everything they have done for me and everyone else. It is crazy to think that this chapter is coming to an end, but I cannot wait to see all the amazing things they have in store."

Canett echoed Navarro's sentiments.

"They were both like parents to me and taught me so much through the five years that I played for them and after," she said. "I strongly believe I wouldn't be where I am in my rugby career without them. They taught me and many others to love the game of rugby and that has been a constant in my life since the day I picked up a rugby ball. It's sad to hear that they both now won't be coaching, but they've put so much time, effort and love into Fallbrook Rugby since they became involved. I'm eternally grateful for their love and guidance through the years."

Durbin, who along with her sister Jonni, starred for FGRC, was the biggest youth rugby star in the country during her time at Fallbrook High, earning her first invite to the USA Rugby 7s camp at age 15.

"Our parents were going to Europe and Jonni and I stayed at the Pinnells, so they were like our parents for two weeks," Durbin said. "I just remember that Craig would pack my lunch and he packed me two sandwiches every day because he knows that I eat a lot and he would put flowers in my sandwiches. He just went above and beyond.

"Marin was one of my teachers as well as my coach and then she also let me stay at her house. I'll never forget those two weeks because I think that it just really shows how much they care beyond the rugby field about their players and they just care about their well-being and livelihood. They would always do more than is expected of them as people to try to help others."

As far as how participating in rugby changed her, Durbin said it was hard to put into words.

"Rugby definitely changed who I am and it's helped shape who I am," she said. "After that first practice and then my first season, it helped show me the kind of person that I wanted to be because I wanted to be that person that helps bring each other up and support each other because that was really helpful to me. If it wasn't for rugby, I don't think I would have known who I was."

Marin, who stepped down from the day-to-day work of running the club almost three years ago, said the structure of the sport has evolved over time, sometimes in not-so-positive ways.

With a very young daughter at the time, the couple's first, it made her decision easier.

Craig and Marin Pinnell posed for a team photo at the Fullerton Invitational in 2015. Village News/Stacey Savin photo

"It wasn't the same for me anymore," Marin said. "Because I couldn't give 100%, it wasn't worth doing for me because I wasn't validating those kids. Then I didn't have that connection anymore. And if I didn't have that connection anymore then I didn't have those relationships and if I didn't have those relationships, then it wasn't rewarding."

That doesn't mean that Marin abandoned the program entirely. She attended most of the matches and stood and coached with her husband at the 2018 High School Girls Club National Championships.

"I don't think we'll ever be that far away from the team and rugby," Marin said. "And yes, when (my daughter) moves off to college, or if she wants to play, that might be something Craig and I go back to doing again."

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at [email protected]


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