Greenwich High rugby team finishes tough season stronger

Greenwich High rugby player Mike Gestal darts down the field during Big Red’s game against an Irish touring team at Cardinal Stadium. — John Ferris Robben

Greenwich High rugby player Mike Gestal darts down the field during Big Red’s game against an Irish touring team at Cardinal Stadium. — John Ferris Robben

It’s been quite a season for the Greenwich High School rugby team.

Not only have the Cardinals kept up their winning ways against teams up and down the state of Connecticut, but this year they’ve expanded those winning ways quite a bit.

In addition to the team’s sixth straight state championship, the Greenwich rugby team traveled to Indiana for competition in the National High School National Championship Invitational, defeated a touring team from Ireland and claimed gold in the Regional Challenge Cup Tournament in Devens, Mass.

“We had a large group of seniors and they were a great group of kids,” Greenwich High School head coach Jim Kelly Sr. said. “They had a great attitude. They were all strong athletes. With the combination of friendship, the familiarity they had with each other and the desire to play together, the accomplishments we had this year were great. They were all a lot of fun to coach.”

Last season was another stellar season for the Cardinals. They finished with a perfect season and won their fifth consecutive state tournament. However, Greenwich was unchallenged in nearly every match they competed in.

That wasn’t the case this season, as Big Red competed against its usual group of competitors, but also played the Massachusetts state champions, perennial power Gonzaga, a touring team from Ireland and also competed in the High School Rugby National Invitational Championships in Indiana.

“It was tougher than any schedule I’ve ever had,” Kelly said. “The past few years we played local teams and beat them pretty easily except for Xavier. Obviously Xavier is always a tough team to beat. This season we challenged ourselves by putting the best competition in front of ourselves in order to really see if we could accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. We played a bunch of really hard teams.”

Although Greenwich started its season with a loss to Gonzaga, it came back and dominated the competition locally, beating teams like New Rochelle (54-10), Fairfield Prep (46-14), Fairfield High (40-7), Simsbury (68-0) and Cheshire (63-3).

Against bitter rival Xavier High School, Big Red battled tough, but came away with the 33-19 defeat. After a 77-26 beating of defending Massachusetts state champion St. John’s Prep, it was on to the High School National Championship Invitational. In the Tier II division, Greenwich beat LaSalette (53-14) and Brownsburg (21-7) before falling to Brother Rice in the Tier II championship match (25-17).

Upon its return to Connecticut, Greenwich learned a lot from its National Championship experience and won the state finals by beating Fairfield Prep 33-14.

It also beat an Irish touring team 31-22 and finished the season by beating MYRO 10-5 in the New England Select Side Challenge Cup. Overall Greenwich finished the season 14-3.

Greenwich High’s Eric Tack grabs possession of the loose ball during the team’s game against an Irish touring team.  — John Ferris Robben photo

Greenwich High’s Eric Tack grabs possession of the loose ball during the team’s game against an Irish touring team. — John Ferris Robben photo

With the season officially in the record books, Gowland increased his career points total at Greenwich High School to 435 and he has still to look forward to his senior season next April. McMurray added 24 tries this season and was one try short of tying the single-season record at GHS. Joe Kelly Jr. finished with 20 tries this season and moved up to second place in career tries scored with 38.

One of the team’s greatest strengths this season was its ability to improve its game after every practice and after every game. Coach Kelly said that he’s upset the season ended because of how talented Greenwich has become.

“We had some really great athletes and we also had a bunch of kids that really understood the game of rugby,” Coach Kelly said. “We are at the best we can possibly be right now and I wish I had the exact same crew for one more year. We would be amazing. Actually, some of those kids said that they wished they played on the team since freshman year. But we also have a lot of those kids coming back for next year, so I have really high expectations for next year’s team.”

Throughout the season, one of the team’s biggest strengths has been its backs. At scrum half, Mateo Gowland would get the ball and fire it to the back. Nakayama would then get the ball and dish it to Joe Kelly Jr., who would then pass the ball to Alex McMurray. Also playing at back were wingers Scott Atkinson and Pieter Zenner. Jesse Adelberg was the team’s fullback.

Greenwich High also had a slew of highly talented forwards. According to Coach Kelly, newcomer to the sport Mark Bernstein improved after every practice and was working hard to learn the sport of rugby. Parker Embree developed through the ranks and this season he prepared himself, trained in the offseason and found himself in very meaningful spots for the team this season.

In order to get more playing time on the pitch, Eric Tack converted from a scrum half to a forward and has been solid throughout the year. In addition to another consistent season from J.P. Doyle, Grant Cucchissi practiced hard throughout the season and more than doubled the number of tackles on the field than anybody else.

“The forwards were undersized throughout most of the year, but they performed well enough to get the ball out to the backs and for us to put our will upon most of the sides we played against,” Coach Kelly said. “As the competition got a little harder and the forwards got a little bigger, our guys did their best.”

What made the season so memorable for Kelly was something that very few coaches have the chance to accomplish. While there are some coaches that like to call their team a family, Kelly can say that with great pride. Not only did he get to see his son, Joe Kelly Jr., dominate the competition with the Cardinals for four years, he got to see his son excel, and all his son’s friends achieve great heights.

“I had both Joe and the friends he’s had on the team for more than just their high school career,” Joe Kelly Sr. said. “I knew them for a long time before they entered high school. These were kids that came over and were Joe’s friends in grammar school and middle school. So it was really fun for this group of seniors specifically. It wasn’t just my kid I was proud of. I was also proud of my son’s friends that he’s grown up with. They played basketball and soccer together when they were eight.

In addition to watching his son compete during his senior year, the game of rugby also brought Joe Kelly’s family closer together.

“My wife really took to the game of rugby the past two years,” Joe Kelly Sr. said. “I don’t think she’ll miss a game any more if she had the opportunity to go to it. Having the family atmosphere this year is really special. All the kids on the team felt like brothers and all the family members of those kids felt like one big family.

The seniors who graduated on Friday were Adelberg, Matthew Alfano, Atkinson, Bernstein, Zak Blechman, Christain Bray, Robert Breck, Jack Burke, Alex Byrne, Marcus Cavini, Cucchissi, Bob Decker, Doyle, Embree, Michael Gestal, William Heerdt, Luke Hoefer, Kelly, Alex McGee, McMurray, Emmett Odegard, Michael Potros, Griffin Savio, Jarrett Silva, Marcus Stinebaugh, Erich Stoltenhoff, Tack, Oscar van der Griend, Chris Warner and Zenner.

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