At any local high school other than Gonzaga, Daniel Collins and his sport might seem a little out of place. The senior plays a contact sport, rugby, that features an oblong ball and little more than a polyester shield of a jersey and shorts for its players. He plays a position, hooker, that draws unusual looks when repeated out of context.
But at this Northwest private school of more than 900 boys, Collins and his passion are at home. Nearly one out of every five students plays rugby at Gonzaga, and the Eagles are the country’s top-ranked team and chasing their first national title.
“Here there’s 180 kids playing rugby, so it’s not looked as an uncommon sport,” Collins said. “Outside the school, when I talk to people they are a little confused because they didn’t realize that anyone plays it in America.”
Rugby, considered a cross between the nonstop nature of soccer and the contact of football, has increased in popularity across the globe. NBC will air this fall’s World Cup in the United States and the sport will return to the 2016 Olympics after a near century-long hiatus. In the Washington area, nearly two dozen schools offer rugby, but few do it to the extent that Gonzaga does.
At Gonzaga, rugby isn’t just treated like a varsity sport; it is one. Its coaching staff of 14 rivals that of the football team, and its roster — which encompasses five teams from freshman to varsity — is larger. The rugby team trains with the school’s strength and conditioning coach and attends summer camps, just as other sports do. While the baseball team goes to South Carolina and the lacrosse team to Texas for in-season tournaments, the varsity rugby team travels to elite rugby hotbeds such as Argentina, Italy or Ireland.
The Eagles have developed a extraordinary tradition of winning. With a 42-8 win over Baltimore’s Mount Saint Joseph on April 30, Gonzaga claimed its 12th consecutive title in the Potomac Rugby Union, a league of 16 local schools. On Sunday, the Eagles defeated St. Gregory’s (Pa.), 55-10, for yet another regional title, the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union championship, earning a spot in the USA Rugby High School National Championship tournament, which begins May 20 in Utah.
The first rugby team at Gonzaga was formed as a club sport in 1988 by a group of students, and in its first two seasons the Eagles managed only one win. Six years later, the school’s athletic department made rugby a varsity sport.
The program grew stronger in the past decade under longtime local coach Lee Kelly, the team’s director of rugby. In that span, the Eagles began their string of PRU titles in addition to six regional titles and participated in six national championship tournaments. Their runner-up finish in the national championship in Salt Lake City last May was the school’s best.
Kelly added top coaches, luring Peter Baggetta — a native of Guam who helped bring rugby to the territory’s high schools and coached its national team in addition to working with the U.S. women’s national team and at Penn State — to serve as head coach in 2009.
But the biggest explosion in the sport at Gonzaga was when the school created a joint freshman-sophomore team, essentially a junior varsity squad, in 2003 to develop younger, inexperienced players. By 2009, the squads were split. “We had so many kids and so much demand,” Kelly said. This year, 10 players on the freshman squad of 60 have played youth rugby — an all-time high and evidence that the sport is reaching new heights in the region, Kelly said.
What makes the rugby team’s accomplishments even more impressive is that unlike Gonzaga’s other top sports, its coaches don’t recruit talent across the region, instead plucking players from within the school building. The coaches don’t make cuts, taking all who are interested in the sport. Most of the players knew little about rugby when they started.
“I don’t think I’d really heard of rugby before coming,” said senior Jack McAuliffe, who four years ago was unsure what sport he would play at Gonzaga as a freshman and has now blossomed into a top national player.
Gonzaga coaches pitch the sport to students of all sizes who don’t play a spring sport such as lacrosse or baseball as a way to stay fit. They’ve had particular success luring football players; this year, 10 football players are on the rugby team, including three of the team’s starting five offensive linemen.
Junior Brendan Johnson, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound left tackle in the fall but nearly 15 pounds lighter in the spring, is one of them. The gridiron is Johnson’s first love and his likely future in college. But football, he says, is like a business with its high-stakes recruiting and endless attention. Rugby, which has comparatively little college scholarship money, is just plain fun. It also offers something that football doesn’t: everyone gets a crack at running with the ball.
“It’s just amazing because you’re so used to in football watching the running back and wide receiver score and get all the credit,” said Johnson, who added, with a broad grin, that even he has scored a few tries in his rugby career.
Gonzaga’s home pitch is Gravelly Point Park, a narrow stretch of grass along the Virginia side of the Potomac River in Arlington that’s more often used for airplane gazers at nearby Reagan National Airport. By the end of the season, it resembles many of the players: bruised and calloused. At a match last month, the field was more mud than grass with old mouthguards stomped into the ground like ancient fossils.
As Baggetta talked to his players following the win over Hyde School, he paused intermittently as planes flew by loudly. The players, huddled around him, looked at home here, dripping in sweat and mud.
“There’s a camaraderie between the guys,” McAuliffe said. “It’s a lot of fun to go roll around in the mud and hit some people.”