Ben Cima didn’t hear the final whistle of his Gonzaga rugby team’s national championship victory Saturday. He thought his team might be losing, actually, as he’d just watched Jesuit (Calif.) score again in the midst of a massive late rally that had kept him too busy to count points.
But when his teammates rushed onto the field, Cima understood: the Eagles still led, 27-26, and the whistle he’d missed had ended Jesuit’s comeback just in time.
Gonzaga won the first High School National Invitational tournament title in 27 years of rugby at the Northwest D.C. school, shedding close calls and near misses of two runner-up finishes in the last five years to emerge as the nation’s top squad at the Moose Rugby Grounds in Elkhart, Ind..
“It was surreal. It didn’t hit me until we were driving back. There were alumni sending me messages on Facebook and via text, congratulating us, and I was just unbelievably proud of what the team had accomplished,” Cima said. “I was so privileged to be a part of the team that did something that no other team at Gonzaga had done.”
That community, said Director of Rugby Lee Kelly, is a particularly crucial part of Gonzaga’s rugby success. After the victory, the Eagles’ first in three finals appearances in the past six years, alumni and families peppered Kelly’s phone with congratulatory texts.
Rugby alums, including the players who started the team in 1988, shared thoughts, memories, and support on the Gonzaga rugby Facebook page. Cima, who was an All-Met kicker for Gonzaga’s football team last fall, said that intensely interested fan base made playing for sparse crowds in Eagles’ matches just as exciting as for their big football student sections.
“Rugby was more motivating. It was almost exclusively our teams, our varsity II, our junior varsity, our parents and our alumni,” Cima said. “Everyone was involved. Everyone was trying to run out water. Everyone was trying to do everything they could to help us win.”
Mid-Atlantic champions for 15 straight seasons and national semifinalists for the past six, Saturday’s title marked the last step on the Eagles’ climb from unlikely Eye Street rugby power to well-known national force.
Michael Barry scored two tries and Stephen Beckerle another in the win over the top-seeded Marauders, which was keyed by the play of Cima, widely regarded as the best high school fly half in the nation, a position roughly equivalent to quarterback.
Cima, an all-American in his final three high school years, spent a significant portion of the 2014 season playing with the U.S. Under-20 national team in Hong Kong, an absence his Eagles teammates overcame without losing a game on their way to their final 18-0-1 record. A hopeful for the U.S. team that will head to the 2015 Rugby World Cup who’s played in tournaments all over the world, Cima said winning the national title was “more important than anything” he’d done yet in rugby.
“My brother played before me, and growing up in the Gonzaga culture made me really want to win the title, especially after years past when we came so close,” Cima said. “We’re just extremely proud.”
Archives: Rugby finds a home at Gonzaga