Greenwich rugby finishes another stellar season on top

Greenwich High School’s Mateo Gowland looks to get rid of the ball before being taken down to the ground during Wednesday’s state championship game against Fairfield. — John Ferris Robben photo

Greenwich High School’s Mateo Gowland looks to get rid of the ball before being taken down to the ground during Wednesday’s state championship game against Fairfield. — John Ferris Robben photo

The Connecticut high school rugby championship trophy has been around for the past six seasons and the only name that appears on the nameplate is Greenwich High School.

Last Wednesday, the Cardinals once again added its name to the championship trophy, as Greenwich High hosted the Fairfield Warde/Ludlowe combined team at Cardinal Stadium and came away with a convincing 34-5 victory.

“This feels great,” GHS senior Gardy Lebon said. “I’m so excited. It’s my senior year and it’s really great to go out with a bang. Keeping the tradition going in winning the state championship was very important to me. Ever since the first day of the season, our goal was to win this championship.”

With the victory, Greenwich capped off yet another stellar season with its seventh consecutive state championship.

“It was great,” Greenwich High head coach Joe Kelly said. “Another state championship and the boys were very excited about the game. They were steady and secured the victory. It was a great finish to a great season. It’s one of the most enjoyable seasons that I have had. It’s a team effort. There is a dedication here where the school supports the program. The school knows that this is a great program and the kids come out.”

Leading the way for Greenwich was senior Mateo Gowland, who finished with one try and three conversions.

“This is very exciting,” Gowland said. “We’ve been going for this since the beginning of the season. This is one of the more important games that we’ve played this year. I am very glad that we came out on top. They came at us very hard and we had to make sure that we tackled them down. We needed to get the ball wide. Once they start spreading out, they cut it back inside. We had to change our strategy a little bit on offense. On defense we had to make sure we tackled them low. That’s exactly what we did.”

In addition to Gowland’s performance, Lebon paced the Cardinals with two tries. His second try happened with only seconds remaining in the championship game.

Greenwich High School’s Jack Freheit looks to get by his Fairfield opponent during Wednesday’s state championship game held at Cardinal Stadium. — John Ferris Robben photo

Greenwich High School’s Jack Freheit looks to get by his Fairfield opponent during Wednesday’s state championship game held at Cardinal Stadium. — John Ferris Robben photo

“I’m very happy for the try at the end,” Lebon said. “It was a team try there. It was the end of the game and I couldn’t be happier that my teammates rely on me to score. Every time I score, I rely on them to help me.”

Yoh Nakayama finished with one try, as did Jack Freheit.

“It means the world to me to win this championship,” Freheit said. “We came out here as a team and played together. I am really proud with how we all came out and played our best. We had a great season leading up to this and getting the state championship is a great way to cap off a great season.”

For Kelly, having his senior class play big minutes in the championship game was a thrill to see.

“All my seniors did great and the captains stepped up huge,” Kelly said. “Gardy had the finishing try and that was a great way for him to conclude his season. He was iffy if he was going to play because he had a concussion that he sustained in practice a couple of weeks ago. He just got cleared to play and I couldn’t be happier for him. Mateo got a try and a bunch of conversions and Yok was working hard for a try, but was setting people up quite a bit. That’s his big thing. It’s his style. Overall though, it was a great performance by all my seniors.”

For Big Red, they are finally able to take a breath and relax. Going into the state championship game, Greenwich had all the pressure. The six-time state champion was going up against a Fairfield combined team that was in the championship game for the first time in its history and stunned Fairfield Prep to get into the finals.

“The talk before the game was more about how bad it would be if we lost the game rather than win the game,” Kelly said. “Just making it to this game was huge for Fairfield High. If they won it, they would have been incredibly overwhelmed with enthusiasm. For us we had to do this. We were going for seven in a row and we beat them quite comfortably in the regular season. The boys were more concerned with how bad the season would have concluded if we lost rather than the win.”

The state championship put a feather in the cap of another outstanding season for the Greenwich High rugby program.

“It’s an honor to be with everybody here,” Freheit said. “Everyone is trying their hardest and you have to compete at the highest level. We are a team that’s known for winning a lot of games and winning championship, so we have a lot of expectations. However, we always come together and this year we had a great season.”

Big Red ran the table on everybody in the state, beating teams like Staples, Fairfield, Fairfield Prep, Ridgefield and Cheshire.

Out of state, the Cardinals were just as successful, beating state powerhouses like St. Thomas and Unionville. Greenwich’s lone regular season loss, outside of Nationals, was against rival and perennial power Xavier.

Competing in the Nationals Rugby Tournament in Elkart, Ind., Greenwich High finished sixth in the country.

“I have played here for four years and haven’t had as much of a good time as I have had here this year,” Gowland said. “We had new players come in and they are like my brothers. We hang out all the time on and off the field. When we are on the field, we play as one team. I’ll never forget this team.”

However, from the start of the season, Big Red wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Stellar rugby players like Joe Kelly Jr., Alex McMurray, Pieter Zenner, Scott Atkinson, Mark Bernstein, Jesse Adelberg and Eric Tack all graduated and left the Cardinals with some holes to fill.

“We graduated some of our outstanding and gifted athletes,” Kelly said. “We wanted to see what our next wave had and they were great. They were friends on and off the field. They were one unit and referred to the team as a family. They trained as a unit and encouraged each other. It was a tight group of kids and a pleasure to work with.”

Throughout the season, one of Greenwich’s massive strengths was its depth as a team.

“We had a very deep team,” Kelly said. “We had 21 starters and you can only start 15. We had to disappoint six kids every game and six kids that clearly deserved to start. I told the kids that when they are down to 90%, there’s a guy on the bench, who at 100%, is a better player. When you have an advantage like that as a coach, you can not lose a state championship.”

While Kelly will truly miss the seniors on the team who are gradating Greenwich High School this week, the GHS head coach is excited about the talented youth the team has.

“The seniors set a great tone for the next group of kids coming up that are going to follow their structure,” Kelly said. “Hopefully they do that because it was a great team effort this year. We are looking good. We have a lot of juniors that will be seniors next year. We have most of our forwards returning and they were enthusiastic on the team.”

“Coming back next year, I know we are going to have another great team,” Freheit said. “Hopefully, we can have another good season.”

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