Greenwich High rugby to swarm on Hoosier State for Nationals

Greenwich High School rugby player Scott Atkinson takes the ball down the field during a recent game at Cardinal Stadium. — John Ferris Robben photo

Greenwich High School rugby player Scott Atkinson takes the ball down the field during a recent game at Cardinal Stadium. — John Ferris Robben photo

The anticipation is finally coming to an end for the Greenwich High School rugby team.

Next week, Big Red will board planes and head towards Elkart, Ind., site of the 2013 High School National Invitational Championships.

In the Single School Team Division, 12 teams from around the country were invited to play in the tournament, located at the Moose Rugby Grounds, with the top eight teams being able to battle for the national championship. Each team will have the opportunity to play at least one 60-minute game per day.

In addition to Greenwich High School, Charlotte Catholic (North Carolina), Chapin (South Carolina), St. Thomas Aquinas (Missouri), Sacramento Jesuit (California), Brownsburg (Indiana), Dixon (California) Notre Dame de La Salette (Indiana), Herriman (Utah), Penn (Indiana) and familiar foes Xavier (New York) and Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.) will be battling the best throughout the weekend.

As of press time, GHS is ranked sixth nationally, according to Rugbymag.com, and just behind fifth-ranked Dixon. Gonzaga is the top team in the country, with Xavier taking the second spot.

Sacramento Jesuits are the third ranked team and Penn is fourth.

The official seeding of Nationals wasn’t released before press time.

Getting to compete in Nationals doesn’t happen for everybody. Teams that are invited from all over the country are chosen based on last year’s success and the success of the program as a whole.

“We had a very good season last year and it was possibly one of the best ever, but we were unable to go to Nationals because it was picked before the season,” Coach Kelly said. “So the brave gentlemen who played and represented Greenwich well last year helped us get into the Nationals. Those seniors that left, I think a lot of the credit goes to them. They helped get us to where we want to be.”

One of the main reasons why Big Red is a threat, no matter who they square off against, is because of its ability to groom top athletes into solid rugby players.

“We are using athletes to mature into rugby athletes,” Kelly said. “Pieter Zenner, who was a star on the soccer team, has found his way on to playing time with the first side. He’s an outstanding athlete that we’re converting into a rugby player. Mark Bernstein was outstanding at football this year, actually got complimented after the Xavier game from the High School All-American at prop, who asked why he hasn’t seen Mark yet. We told him that it was his first year and the kid was shocked. Mike Gestal has been breathing fire from the first day of practice. We put him through an intense training program and now he’s a starter for us.”

In addition to the newcomers to the sport, Greenwich has been heavily relying on its top rugby talent, such as Joe Kelly at inside center, Mateo Gowland at scrum half, Yoh Nakayama at fly half, Parker Embree at prop, Grant Cucchissi at flanker, Jesse Adelberg at full back, Scott Atkinson at wing, Alex McMurray at outside center and Eric Tack at second row.

“All these things are coming together,” Coach Kelly said. “With the new guys quickly learning and the veteran guys teaching them, everybody is working together and we are peaking when we should be. When we leave for nationals, we are going to be in the best possible position we can be.

In Big Red’s final tune-up before the National championships, Greenwich hosted St. John’s Prep of Massachusetts, a powerhouse in The Bay State. Prior to this season, St. John’s Prep has been undefeated for the past five seasons, had a 65-game winning streak and are defending state champions.

In the battle of state champs, Big Red didn’t give St. John’s Prep a chance to regroup on its senior day. McMurray, Zenner, Cucchisso, Joe Kelly and Scott Atkinson each netted first half trys and Greenwich was well on its way, beating St. John’s Prep 77-26.

“It was senior day, so we got every senior that wanted to play a chance to play,” Coach Kelly said. “We were able to do that and they were playing very well. It was an exciting game to watch and we got a convincing victory. They scored on us when we had players in positions they normally aren’t used to playing because we wanted to get them in as seniors.”

This season, Greenwich has lost only two matches, both to top-notch talent. Big Red started the year with a loss to Gonzaga from Washington D.C., a team that’s currently the No. 1 team in the country. The second loss came at the hands of rivals Xavier, the second-ranked team in the nation.

Before the game even took place, Xavier wasn’t sure what Greenwich team they would be facing. Xavier was in the stands watching Greenwich fall to Gonzaga to start the season and were maybe thinking Big Red will be a big disappointment.

Greenwich fell behind 13-0 early, as Xavier converted on two trys and penalty goal. However, the big lead didn’t last too long.

“We weren’t ready to play in that game against Gonzaga and they have been playing for couple of months before we started practices,” Kelly said. “Xavier must have been thinking that we weren’t going to be as competitive as we’ve been in the past. We came at Xavier pretty hard early but they struck first. I think that was a wake-up call for us.”

Mateo Gowland netted a try and inside center Joe Kelly was able to get the ball after Big Red intercepted an Xavier pass and convert on a try to make the score 13-12.

“We have the ability to score at any time in any way,” Coach Kelly said. “They were playing more of a smash head rugby and we play more of a finesse game. We went at them and waited for the opportunities and took advantage of them. I am really proud of the way we came back.”

Although Greenwich was only trailing by 13-12 to start the second half, Xavier used its strength and power to outscore Big Red 20-7 in the second half. Alex McMurray and netted Greenwich’s lone try of the half and Gowland was able to score on a conversion.

“We basically trailed them by one try throughout most of the game and at the end, when we were taking some more risks in an attempt to score, they were able to get another try to put the game away.  That still didn’t stop our boys. We gathered around the goal post after they scored their last try with a few minutes left and we still had an opportunity to score. We exploded into the next phase of play and didn’t give up until the last whistle.”

Besides falling the top two teams in the nation, the Cardinals have been steamrolling the competition. After the team’s opening game loss to Gonzaga, Big Red has been on fire, beating New Rochelle 54-10, Simsbury High School 68-0, Cheshire High School 63-3 in addition to rivals Fairfield Prep 46-14 and Fairfield High 40-7.

“We scored a lot of points and tried a lot of different things in some of the games that we knew we were going to win,” Kelly said. “Last year we were peaking earlier in the season when we were putting these 100-0 scores together. This year we slowed it down some and are reaching our peak now.

While Coach Kelly and the rest of the Cardinals are aiming to be the last team standing at Nationals, competing at such a high level will be an experience unlike any other.

“This is a unique experience for the kids because they are having the opportunity to achieve and compete for a national championship,” Coach Kelly said. “That’s something that they’ll remember forever, but if they actually win the national championship, that’s something they’ll have forever. No one could take that away from them. This is something that we incredibly want. We are peaking heading into this tournament. We are starting to believe that this is achievable. We’re starting to build the confidence necessary to win this thing. I think it’s doable.”

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