Staples rugby gears up for season
Last Saturday, Ludlowe High School's Taft field was the site of a three-team scrimmage and clinic that included plenty of big hits and solid tackling.
No, the sport wasn't football, but a different physical game that is rapidly gaining popularity locally. The coaches of the Staples, Ridgefield and host Fairfield rugby teams participated in a session aimed at improving both individual and team skills with the spring season on the horizon.
"Rugby, more than any other sport I'm aware of, has that camaraderie between teams, not just within teams," Staples assistant coach Randy Heller said. "It's a cool thing."
Both Heller and head coach Oscar Barahona will begin their fifth seasons coaching the Wreckers this spring. The team went from zero wins in 2012 to a 3-4 record and a fourth place finish in Connecticut last year despite a host of injuries down the stretch.
Staples graduated its four captains from last year's squad -- Jackson Yang, Matt Cozzi, Umberto Pucci and Brian Book. Tyler Crowder and Spencer Warner will serve as two of the Wreckers' captains this term.
"We're really excited," Crowder said. "We lost a lot of good players, but we have a lot of up-and-coming freshman and some good new players."
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The same three-letter acronym of ELM -- effort, learning and productive mistakes -- will be the motto of the team again this season as players learn the sport inside and out.
"By trying to isolate some of those things, the boys can see that improvement from week-to-week, whether they win or lose," Heller said. "And then over the course of the season measure the progress."
Heller said he expects the Wreckers to be stronger at the back, especially with Crowder playing scrum- half.
"(Crowder) could probably play any position on the field for us," Heller said. "We have him going as scrum-half, which is really almost like the quarterback of the team."
Crowder, who began playing in third grade in his native Australia, has noticed an increase in numbers as Staples rugby, which was formed in 2003, has developed into a solid program.
"When I came in I was surprised by the big turnout that we had," Crowder said. "From sophomore year to senior year three years later, I've noticed a lot more kids are coming in. It's a big growth."
Interest in the sport has grown at the local, regional and national levels. That was evident Saturday as first-year program Ridgefield traded hits with Fairfield and Staples.
"The growth of the sport has been absolutely phenomenal, both nationally and locally," Heller said. "It's a fast-growing sport and we hope to have a youth program in Westport in a couple of years."
This year, the Wreckers face a tough schedule that includes perennial powers Greenwich and Fairfield Prep. The Wreckers open the season against Darien on April 3.
"We want to beat some teams we haven't in the past couple of years, like Fairfield Prep and Fairfield," Crowder said. "We are playing with a smaller group, so we want to play fast as a team."