In a circle, the boys of the Hyde Leadership Public Charter School rugby team knelt on the school's dusty field yesterday, hands on one another's shoulders, eyes shut and heads bowed for their pregame ritual.
"Be strong. Be strong. Be strong," they chanted, their voices rising over the chatter of the growing crowd and the thud of music from an imported sound system in the worn stadium behind Hyde. "Amen."
With that, the players headed into battle against their arch rival, Gonzaga College High School.
It was only an exhibition game, but for the Hyde players -- members of the only all-black rugby team in the Washington area -- the event was also part of a crucial New Zealand Embassy-sponsored fundraiser for their financially strapped program.
Just five years old, the team is flourishing at the inner-city school of 700 students in Northeast Washington. It has traveled across the country to play in prestigious tournaments, sent some players to national teams and held its own in the 23-school Potomac Rugby Union, which includes such powerhouses as Gonzaga, Georgetown Prep and DeMatha.
Most importantly, said head coach and founder Tal Bayer, every graduating team member has gone on to college. The team, he said yesterday, "is an amazing story."
Bayer, 34, a rugby player and former mortgage banker, started the program after he came to the charter school as a math teacher in 1999.
The New Zealand connection came about several years ago when Ambassador John Wood was looking for a better field for an annual rugby tournament hosted by the embassy.
"We discovered that Hyde school had a pretty good ground," Wood said. "We found they had a pretty good rugby program, too. But no money."
So the New Zealanders began staging their annual tournament -- the Ambassador's Shield -- at Hyde's field in 2002 and at the same time, adopted the team. Hyde's team became part of the tournament and received the profits raised by the matches, which draw up to 1,000 spectators for New Zealand's national sport. Last year, the tournament made almost $10,000 for the Hyde team. Wood anticipates $15,000 this year.
Most of Hyde's players had never seen Rugby's distinctive oblong ball until they joined the program.
Junior Larry Williams Jr., 16, came out for the team three years ago after he was told the sport resembled backyard football.
He was astounded, however, by what he saw at the first practice.
"You pass the ball backward? Not forward?" he remembered thinking. "That's not right."
The team has to deal with challenges and setbacks unimagined by wealthier schools and rugby clubs in the area.
Yesterday, team members turned out at 7 a.m. to block off broken benches in the stadium with yellow caution tape. They also discovered that a window of their 24-passenger bus had been smashed in -- again. The bus is vandalized regularly, Bayer said. A few weeks ago, someone tried to set fire to it.
But for many of the players, such trials are minor compared with what they've faced off the field.
Two of team member Travelle "T-Mac" Blount's friends have been shot to death, and he's lost others to drugs and the streets. The Southeast Washington senior said he was also headed in that direction until he found rugby.
"It helped me stay out of trouble, stay off the streets," he said.
Now Blount, a senior, is applying to such universities as Radford, Penn State and North Carolina State and plans to major in engineering or computer science.
"I never thought I'd go to college," he said. "I never thought I'd make it this far."
Yesterday, Hyde got off to a slow start in its game when Gonzaga scored two "tries," or goals, in the opening minutes of the first half. By the end of the half, the score was 12-0 Gonzaga. But Hyde regrouped in the second half, and the game ended in a tie.
Hyde came back from a miserable first half, Bayer pointed out. The players didn't give up.
It's a lesson he drives home again and again. "No matter what," he tells them, "you may be down, but you're not out."
Staff writer Petula Dvorak contributed to this report.