(Originally Printed in the Press of Atlantic City – May 19, 2017)
By Erin Grugan for the Press, Photo by Dale Gerhard)
The St. Augustine Prep rugby team was winless in 2013.
Four years later, the Hermits are headed to the playoffs hoping to make their third consecutive appearance in the state final. They lost the previous two championship games to state powerhouse Delbarton.
The first step toward a title for the second-seeded Hermits will come at 1 p.m. Saturday, when they host third-seed Christian Brothers Academy in a semifinal game.
“We graduated 22 seniors last year, so we fielded an almost entirely new team this season,” Hermits coach Brendon Towell said, “but we didn’t lower our expectations as a coaching staff. I scheduled the hardest games I could find for the preseason because I wanted our team to be exposed to playoff-level rugby right off the bat.
“In fact, we opened our regular season against Delbarton. We lost on a penalty by three points. I didn’t consider that a loss because we really competed with the state champions, even as a fairly new team.”
Towell is in his first season at the helm after five years as an assistant coach. When the program began in 2009, the Hermits couldn’t win a game and struggled to even score a try — the equivalent of a touchdown in football. By 2012, the team went .500.
Now, they are 4-2, having earned the second seed in the five-team Single School, or Gold, Division. The division also includes Hudson Catholic and St. Peter’s Prep.
“When the program began, it was hard to get kids to come out because most didn’t know much about the game,” Towell said. “The toughest thing is making athletes, their other coaches and even their parents realize that rugby won’t interfere with their schedule and that we will work with anyone,” Towell said.
The Prep coaches do not cut out any athlete who tries out for the team. Instead, they create an A team and a B team, much like a varsity and junior varsity.
“There’s a spot for anyone on our team. Whether they are a multi-sport student or they never played a high school game, we can find a spot for them,” Towell said. “I’m always recruiting any student that I think may at least consider playing. It’s just a matter of getting them excited to try something new, and once they’re on the field, they never want to come off.”
Josh Daids is one of those students. After four years as a linebacker for the football team, the senior decided to take Towell up on his offer this spring.
“I wanted to come out in my junior year but was worried about possibly being injured before my senior season for football,” Daids said. “Once this year came around, I finally had my chance. I tried out and loved it right away.”
Despite his experience on the football field, Daids was grateful to have the help of his coaches to become acclimated to what he discovered to be a completely different game.
“At first, the most difficult thing was learning the different rules and strategies that are involved in rugby,” he said. “After that, I realized how this team becomes even more of a brotherhood than a football team. We train together, we eat meals together. It quickly became a family, and that was a great experience.”
Much like his coaches, Daids hopes to see more rugby teams form and thrive in high schools across South Jersey.
“It’s a character builder. It teaches you to allow people to depend on you while learning to depend on others when you need it,” Daids said. “I also got to meet kids I never saw on the football field or even in my classes.
“Rugby is a way to bring different kids together, and it’s awesome.”