Greenwich High rugby aiming for the top in the nation

Greenwich High School’s Alex McMurray runs through the Fairfield Prep defense during last week’s home opener. — John Ferris Robben photo

Greenwich High School’s Alex McMurray runs through the Fairfield Prep defense during last week’s home opener. — John Ferris Robben photo

Looking at all the talent back from last year’s Greenwich High School rugby team and seeing all the great things Big Red accomplished last season, head coach Joe Kelly has every right to aim high.

In fact, Kelly and the rest of the Cardinals are aiming as high as they can go, as they’re determined to bring home the national championship to Greenwich High School.

“If everybody stays healthy, everything clicks and some of the newer athletes that are new to the game mature to their positions, if we could win some balls for our backs and the forwards battle hard, we have a great chance at a national championship,” Kelly said.

Last year was something magical for Greenwich High. With Kelly unsure how Big Red’s season would go, the team completed an unbeaten campaign, which included a victory against its toughest rival, Xavier, during Homecoming at Cardinal Stadium. The Cards went on to win the state championship; however, they weren’t able to fight for a national crown.

This year’s a different story. With its backs all returning and a plethora of talent up front, Greenwich, which was ranked in the top five of the country to start the season, signed up for the invitational tournament and will be ready to fight for a title in mid-May with the best teams in the nation.

“Our ideal goal is that we are going to build to the Nationals,” Kelly said. “As the season is set up, we have a couple of challenges to begin with and work on a few things when it comes to league play. We don’t expect to be challenged a lot in league play, but want to work on some stuff. From there we face Xavier and know where we stand at that point, and hopefully we will be at the level we want to be at. Once we play Xavier, then we focus totally on playing for the national championship.”

USA Rugby decided not to hold a high school championship, which left an unfinished feeling to the season for some rugby programs throughout the country, Greenwich being one of them. That’s when the High School National Invitational Championship was born.

From May 16 to 18, 24 high school teams from around the country will get together in Elkhart, Ind., for competition in the championship. Each team will play at least one 60-minute game per day and the seedings for the championship will take place in May.

Greenwich was selected as one of the teams to play in the Single School Team division and will be joined by Chapin (South Carolina), Brownsburg (Indiana), Notre Dame de La Salette (Indiana), Jesuit (California), Penn (Indiana), Xavier (New York), Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.), St. Thomas Aquinas (Missouri), Charlotte Catholic (North Carolina), and Herriman (Utah).

“Our group played so well last year that it got us the invitation to the nationals,” Kelly said. “Without the contribution from last year’s seniors and last year’s team, we wouldn’t have found ourselves as one of the top 12 teams in the country to be invited and accepted to the championship.”

Greenwich High School head coach Joe Kelly looks on during Friday’s game against Connecticut rival Fairfield Prep. Big Red will be looking to be the best in the country when it travels to Indiana for competition in Nationals. — John Ferris Robben photo

Greenwich High School head coach Joe Kelly looks on during Friday’s game against Connecticut rival Fairfield Prep. Big Red will be looking to be the best in the country when it travels to Indiana for competition in Nationals. — John Ferris Robben photo

This year’s GHS rugby team will be highlighted by its backfield play, as Kelly believes his team’s backs are one of the best in the country.

Leading the way are two of the three captains on Big Red. Mateo Gowland will be the team’s scrum half, while Joe Kelly Jr. will play the inside center position.

“Our skill in the backs will be a strength,” Joe Kelly Jr. said. “We have a lot of veterans coming back from last year and that’s going to help us out a lot. In my opinion, I think we have the best backs in the country and we’re going to show the teams that.”

Also playing in the back will be a slew of talented rugby players. Jesse Adelberg, the kicker on the GHS football team, will be playing fullback on the rugby squad. Scott Atkinson will be at the wing, while Alex McMurray will utilize his toughness and athletic abilities at the outside center slot. Yoh Nakayama will round out the backfield and play fly half.

“It’s great to be a leader here, especially with Joe and Grant (Cucchissi),” Gowland said. “I’ve played with them before and this is a great team. We all get along really well. Communication is a big part of rugby, especially with the forwards and backs. We also need to work together about getting along and getting that chemistry going.”

Big Red’s third captain, Grant Cucchissi, will be used at flanker, and the GHS head coach said that he makes a lot of tackles during every game he plays. Eric Tack, who just came off a stellar wrestling season for Big Red, was converted from a scrum half to second row because Kelly wants him on the field as much as possible, due to the talent already in the back. Joining Tack at second row will be J.P. Doyle, while Jack Burke will be the team’s other flanker.

Mark Bernstein, who had a stellar season with the GHS football team, will be utilizing his athletic abilities for the rugby team this year and will be playing the prop position on the field.

“Mark is a great athlete and now we are hoping to get him up to speed on how to play the position of prop,” Kelly said. “With the success we had last year of converting some outstanding athletes to rugby players, we are going to try that strategy again this year. So far it’s going well and he’s progressing nicely. We want to get him a lot of playing time because his athleticism will help us at the national championship.”

Also playing prop for Greenwich will be Parker Embree. Marcus Stinebaigh will round out the forwards and play the hooker position.

“Our team is capable of great things and we work really well together,” Joe Kelly Jr. said. “Our forwards have really gotten together pretty well and in the last game they really showed their stuff. They have been really working hard.”

Greenwich took its first step in its drive for the national championship Friday afternoon at Cardinal Stadium. Hosting in-state rival Fairfield Prep, Greenwich’s main competition in the Nutmeg State, Big Red fell behind 7-0.

However, the deficit didn’t last long, as Greenwich exploded onto the scene the rest of the way and dominated the Jesuits, easily pulling out the 46-14 victory.

“Against our archrivals, we were without high school All-American Joe Kelly,” the Greenwich head coach said. “He was over in London playing for the American team. We played without one of our stronger players, but we came together and did what we had to do. The forwards hit very hard and continued to hit until they took the upper hand on ball control and then they headed out to the backs. The backs did what they do best. With Joe in the lineup, I feel pretty safe to say that we have the best backs in the country.”

McMcurray and Atkinson each converted two trys each, while Gowland, Adelberg and Joaquin Moraiz each added trys for Big Red. With the victory, Greenwich upped its overall record to 2-1 on the young season.

“We play a fast game where we open up,” Kelly said. “We start building, making sure we have control, and from there we open it up. We need to understand how to possess the ball and once we get consistent and understand how to possess the ball, then we are running and are fast to distribute it. We then take all balls fast. We also try to be smarter mentally than our opponents, but we are getting there and it’s going to take a little time.”

By participating in the comments section of this site you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and User Agreement

© Hersam Acorn. All rights reserved. The Greenwich Post, 10 Corbin Drive, Floor 3, Darien, CT 06820

Designed by WPSHOWER

Powered by WordPress