By Paul Silverfarb
(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with the standing and seedings for the National Championships)
In a week, the No. 7 ranked high school rugby team in the country, Greenwich High School, will pack its bags and head more than halfway across the country to the Kansas City area for competition in the Boys’ High School Rugby National Championships.
Competing at such a high level is nothing new to Big Red. For the Cardinals, it will be their fifth consecutive trip to the national championship tournament, a record for the Greenwich rugby program.
And don’t think for a second that it’s easy have a program that’s consistently battling for the top team in the country.
“It’s hard to keep it to that level,” Greenwich High School head coach Joe Kelly said. “People, from the outside looking in, assume that there are only eight teams in the country and all go to the championships. That just isn’t the case. We have a great coaching staff and great support in the community. We have a great youth program and now have a men’s program. The town really loves the sport and we really feel that within the team itself, we have 170 kids involved. Not all are athletes, but all care about rugby and the program.”
The goal for the Cardinals at the High School Rugby National Championships is quite simple.
“We want to win the national championship,” Kelly said. “We believe that we can do it. We have been here enough, so we are not intimidated by the tournament. A good number of the starters here have been to a national championship before. What we expect is to win. If we don’t win, we are going to battle for as many wins as we can possibly get. If we win the first game, we are still on track for the national championships. If we win the second game, we are in the finals and if we win the third one, we win the national championships.”
If Greenwich wins the national championship, they will certainly earn it. In addition to Greenwich, ranked seventh in the country, playing in the single school division, a plethora of talent is also packed into the division.
This year, Greenwich High School is the sixth-seeded team in the eight-team field of the single-school bracket. Leading the way is Jesuit, as they are the top-seeded team. Last year’s defending champion, Gonzaga High School will be the second-seeded team, followed by Penn High School.
Greenwich’s rival, Xavier High School, will be the fourth-seeded team, with Herriman taking up the No. 5 seed. At No. 7 is St. Edwards and rounding out the eight-team field is Fishers.
The competition, taking place at the Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City, will see the Cardinals opening up against Penn High School Thursday at 4:30 p.m. If they advance, Big Red will play the winner of St. Edwards and Gonzaga Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.
And playing strong will be something that Big Red will have to do if they want to compete in the High School Rugby National Championships. Battling against the seven other top teams in the country, the Cardinals will be seeded either fifth of sixth in the upcoming tourney.
While the fifth or sixth ranking in the tournament will determine who Big Red will play, Kelly said he isn’t concerned about the opponent.
“We are happy to play the best team in the country and we are happy to play the fourth best team in the country,” Kelly said. “We know we are going to be in the bottom half of the seeding, so anybody that we play will be fine with us. If we play the top team, that will be great because it gets us more excited to play the top team. That team will be going into the game trying to get by with the least exhausted players they can. We are going into the game just trying to win.”
Knowing they could play against the top teams of the country and remain competitive, Greenwich High School will be entering the championships with a load of confidence.
“We are bringing up the level of confidence where we want our goal to be invincible,” Kelly said. “What we work towards, our fitness and our skills and pushing ourselves harder and harder where we are exhausted after every practice, is to achieve invincibility. If we believe we are invincible, just in the word alone, we cannot lose.”
Greenwich’s experience competing at the championships is something that Kelly believes will be a huge key to the team’s success.
“We try to bring kids who might not be starters, or are younger kids, to the national championships or to our Virginia trip this year to get them used to the environment and get them used to the talent at these events,” Kelly said. “We also have kids that have older brothers or cousins who were on one of the teams that competed at the national championships. Also, we get kids that have played in the national championships in the past to come back and talk to the kids about their experience.”
And why not aim high. Locally, Big Red has been on fire, winning the games that they should win. They beat teams like Fairfield Prep, Staples and Fairfield, Simsbury, Play Rugby USA and Fordham Prep.
“This team has progressed very nicely,” Kelly said. “We beat all the local teams that we needed to beat and by actually playing close games against the best in the country.”
However, while the Cards have plowed through the competition from around the area, that doesn’t mean everything was painless. GHS challenged themselves by going to Virginia to compete against the best team in the country, Fort Hunt.
“The boys started that game intimidated, but quickly realized that the No. 1 team in the country wasn’t eight feet tall and all didn’t shoot lightning out of their eyes,” Kelly said. “Once they realized that was the case, they ran with it to the point where we were only down one score leading up to the last two minutes of the game.”
From there it was on to its annual rivalry game with Xavier and to say Xavier had revenge on its mind was an understatement. Last year, in front of a quite raucous crowd at Cardinal Stadium, Big Red upset Xavier, 34-29.
“Our local rival Xavier was up for the game and, for a number of reasons, we weren’t on as we should have been,” Kelly said. “We still played them evenly, as the score was 5-5 at the half. Then we went on to lose by two scores. It was a close fight. Xavier and Fort Hunt are the two best teams in the country and if we could play with them, that means we could go to National Championships strong.”
When it comes to on-the-field play, Kelly believes that the teams consistency. At the start of the season, Big Red had a lot of skill in certain areas and kids that were athletically fit in other areas. In some areas there were a lack of skills and some Cardinals that weren’t fit enough to make an impact at the varsity level.
Throughout the season, that has changed, much to the pleasure of Kelly and his coaching staff.
“The less fit guys are becoming more fit, the less skilled guys are becoming more skilled and they are being led by the guys that are fit and skilled,” Kelly said. “Like any team, when you have the fit guys helping the unfit guys get fit and the skilled guys helping the unskilled guys become more skilled in rugby.”
Kelly said that junior Sebastiano Villani at scrum half has been playing well. Senior Ian Pearson has been pacing the team at forward and has been quite dominating this season.
Senior Zhaire House at outside center, senior captain Kevin Iobbi at inside center and senior captain Patrick McTiernan have all played key minutes for Big Red.
“While the back line has had a series of injuries this season, they have held their own and are playing well,” Kelly said. “The captains are leading really well and the juniors are big and stepping up.”
One of the surprises for Kelly has been the play of newcomer Bici Mozi, since the sophomore came to the team never really having played the sport. Now he’s one of the major threats on the team and is one of the squad’s leading scorers.
“When he first game on and I asked if he’s ever played rugby, he would always say ‘No, but I’m learning,’” said Kelly. “He’s an outstanding player and has played since he came on to the team. Since he played his first varsity game, he’s played just around every minute this season and is one of the team’s leading scorers.”
Joining Mozi up front are juniors D.J. Brown, Nic McIntosh and John Duffy.