A Decade of Titan Rugby

 

It’s hard to believe that the Wilbraham & Monson Academy Rugby program has crossed the 10-year threshold. This spring marks the 11th season of existence for the boys’ team and 10th year as a varsity sport. A girls’ program was established in 2018, and this spring was to mark its first at the varsity level.

By Coaches Wally Swanson and Tim Harrington '71

It’s hard to believe that the Wilbraham & Monson Academy Rugby program has crossed the 10-year threshold. This spring marks the 11th season of existence for the boys’ team and 10th year as a varsity sport. A girls’ program was established in 2018, and this spring was to mark its first at the varsity level.

WMA’s experience in the sport of rugby during the past decade looks much like a microcosm of the sport in the United States. American Rugby has lived a roller coaster ride for the past 100 years, from Olympic gold medalists in the 1920s, to being invisible as a sport in the 1950s and 1960s, to a great revival in the 1970s at the college and club level, to the decline and restructuring of the clubs and territorial unions in the 1990s and early 2000s, and finally to the resurgence over the past two decades. This resurgence has been fueled by the growth of the game at the youth and high school level. In February, New England’s first professional rugby team — the Free Jacks —  played its first match and at least one of the players on that team took the field as a high school player against the Titans.

Wilbraham & Monson Academy rugby has played a proud role in that resurgence in New England. Both Titan coaches — Tim Harrington ’73  and Wally Swanson — were on the first board of the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Organization, which emerged in the 2009 restructuring of high school rugby across the  U.S. The aim of MYRO was to win acceptance of the high school sport at the state level, which occurred two years ago.

Although that has been a victory for the sport in Massachusetts, it has been a mixed blessing for the Titans since we are no longer a league match for any of our historic rivals, and since New England prep schools have resisted adding the sport even though it is now widely played in Massachusetts and Connecticut. However, for the Titans, the high school restructuring gave us an immediate pathway into a league structure (based on high school and club teams at that time).

The first piece of advice we would give anyone thinking of starting a high school rugby team in the U.S. is to do it when you have two experienced Australian players in the student body, which is what we did. That non-varsity 2009 team was trounced in its first match against an established high school club team, Worcester Spartans. That same WMA team, led by Australian fly-half Scott Watson ’11 and winger Maoi Marcellino ’10, went on to win nine of the next 12 matches, including a victory over Worcester in the MYRO tournament to clinch our bracket in the MYRO state tournament. The program was airborne.

The next year was even more successful, with many returnees including scrum-half Jeremy Gilfor ’11, center Kanta Sugai ’11 and Watson at fly-half.

The 2010 team went 9–2, with narrow losses against perennial powerhouse teams Belmont High School and Bishop Hendricken of Warwick, R.I. The loss against Hendricken was the toughest to swallow since it was by one point in extra time at home. The team rebounded from those losses and clinched the MYRO Division II state championship at the end of the season with victories over Needham and Scituate high schools.

The following year, MYRO changed the tournament dates to June (after Commencement for us) to put them more in line with MIAA championships, and WMA has been unable to compete in the championships since. That did not come as a surprise, and WMA has put together a hybrid schedule playing prep teams, regional club teams and high school “friendly” matches since then. We have also been part of the first tottering steps of a potential New England prep rugby league with Kimball Union, Albany Academy and the Harvey School.

During the next six years, the team was able to replicate its early success as a growing number of international boarding students and local day students came to the sport out of curiosity, though not usually with much experience in the game. At WMA, roughly 90 percent of our players learn rugby here.

Those teams from 2011 to 2017 were always competitive and always managed to win more matches than they lost. Many of the boys who came out were athletes in other sports who deserve much credit for ignoring the naysayers and coming to rugby. Many of the boys had hardly played competitive team sports before, but were willing to try a sport where just about everyone else was also a beginner.

The geographic and ethnic diversity of our team has always reflected our school. Over the years there has been a chain of impact players from China (Ethan Qiu ’13, Steven Shen ’14,  Jack Xie ’14, Gavin Chen ’14 and Evan Qiao ’14),  South Korea (Jon Lee ’10, HS Jung ’12 and  Ralph Lee ’15), Italy (Baccio Galletti ’16 and  Edo Comazzi ’17) as well as Eastern Europe, Kuwait, Mexico, Bangladesh, Angola and Japan. We have always been a welcoming group.

Those teams benefited from a number of football players coming out, including Max Rankin ’12, Desmond Gray ’12, ShaCor Privott ’14, Jack Viens ’13 (our first four-year starter), Miles Nallen ’15, Drew Mele ’15, Filip Vukelic ’16 and the late Dillinger Perez ’15. Soccer players like Phil Antonacci ’13, Andy Goncalves ’15 and all-time single-season scoring leader Evan Roy ’15 have also been impact players. The team has done especially well with wrestlers, like Sasha Oliinyk ’14, Joe Thibault ’13 and Jordan Payne ’16, and we’ve even had a few swimmers (Cole Hansen ’17, Wenjun “Happy” Chang ’18 and Austin Fabbo ’15). And one or two even came here knowing how to play rugby already, like Ryan McLarney ’12 and Alex Corcoran ’13. While our coaching colleagues at WMA may disagree, to us they are all rugby players.

The past two years have presented new challenges as the sport has taken off with Massachusetts high schools while the local regional clubs have dissolved, partly as a result. We are still able to field talented and explosive teams, like the 2018 team that went undefeated (and unchallenged) up to its final match with our archrival Harvey School (we lost). That team had big and athletic forwards (captain Rohan Heron ’19, Sam Zabolotnij ’19, Anthony Arnieri ’18 and Shohei Ishikawa ’19) as well as speed in the backs (Jason Lee ’19, Ben Wisniewski ’18 and Jakub Kanovics ’19) and most of all, possibly the school’s best scrum-half/fly-half tandem (Kizuki Koyasu ’20 and Ties van Haastrecht ’18).

The 2019 team had more new players than previous teams and played an arguably tougher schedule than we have played in the past (the high school teams keep getting larger and better). But that “losing” season was one of the most fun and satisfying of any of them: led by captains Koyasu and Will Crocker ’20,  we got better each match and we came through with a big win over Harvey at home on the last day of the season, effectively getting payback.  It was a memorable send-off for our seniors, and set us up nicely for the 2020 season.

Through it all, our philosophy has remained constant: have fun, learn and live the ethos of the game, and play rugby the right way.

There is no other reason to play rugby except for fun. Presently, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rugby rainbow, though we are beginning to see changes in the college admissions process for the better. At the end of every match, we cheer for the referee and our opponents and then feed them by our pitch in the woods. The smell of hamburgers and hotdogs on the grill has become a fixture of the spring at WMA. Hugh Harrell Field, in our humble opinion, has become the best place to watch a game on campus.

The spring of 2018 marked another red letter day for rugby at WMA when the first girls’ team took the field against Lincoln-Sudbury. Led by former boys’ rugby manager Celina Rivernider ’19, the girls in our community asked for their own rugby team. The 2020 season was to mark their third year of existence and their first with varsity status.

Over 10 years, we’ve had some extremely talented players. Over the years, we’ve also had a host of untalented players. That is the wonderful reality of coaching inclusive high school sports. Yet, it is the growth of each of these players that has made coaching so rewarding.

Per Academy rules of team equity, each varsity team gets new uniforms once every five years. As our boys don their third set of uniforms and our girls wear their first, we are so pleased to see WMA Rugby continue to move forward as we count the days until the next match.