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Madison, a Rugby Mecca Befitting a Championship

  • 20 May 2024
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The Girls’ High School and High School Club 15s National Tournaments occurred at the same location, over the same three-day period, for the first time since 2018. The teams, supporters and organizers deserve a heap of gratitude and congratulations, as it was a superb event in a stellar facility — Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex — and the rugby was top notch. Regardless of whether or not the annual event returns to Madison, Wis., the 2024 championship will stand as one of my top-three rugby experiences. [lead photo: USA Pathways coach Sue Whitwell hands out championship medals.]

VENUE + MANAGEMENT

The Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex is a venue befitting a national championship. The convenient layout, beautiful pitches divided by a clubhouse with two viewing platforms, locker rooms, clean facilities — it brings that professional touch that honors the participants who invested the time, money and effort to get to nationals. Tournament director Brad Dufek did a great job producing a well organized event, liaising with college recruiters, media, vendors, etc., and transmitting info through the Wisconsin Rugby app.

Tournament director Brad Dufek pulling double duty

Chris Kovac was the first-time director for the high school club event, while John Waliszewski has been the many-years point person for the single schools. They both run organizing committees and did a great job bringing this built-out event to life. From a media standpoint, Waliszewski provided team photos and player rosters ahead of time, making player IDs a breeze, and worked on the sponsorships that set up The Rugby Network livestreams. These assets not only help scouts, but also provides the sport the visibility it needs to grow.

Additionally, the single-school tournament sponsored The Rugby Breakdown’s flight to Madison, and without that support, the trip would have been untenable for me. It’s truly humbling to get that backing from an already volunteer base.

TEAM BREAKOUT

As one might expect, the Midwest had the strongest presence at the Wisconsin tournament (following groups the single-school and club teams together):

• WEST (CA, UT, ID): Belmont Shore, Eagle, Majestics, Meridian, SacPAL, United, Wolverines

• NORTHEAST (CT, NJ, NY): Aspetuck, City Honors, Morris

• MIDWEST (IL, IN, MI, WI): Catholic Memorial, Chicago, DSHA, Hamilton, Hononegah, Grandville, SPASH, Taft, Warsaw

• SOUTH (NC, TN): Clayton, Columbia Central

Three programs — DSHA, Eagle and Columbia Central — brought their JV sides as well. For DSHA, that trip is easier coming from Milwaukee, but it’s important to note that the Angels’ JV team qualified for the Wisconsin state final in fall 2023 and went undefeated in the Midwest championship’s JV/Open division. In other words, they’re credentialed and finished sixth in Division I.

Eagle brought one sub for its JV team but made it work and finished 3rd in the single-school DII. Kraig Smikel talked about the investment in a JV side, but more significantly, two sides at a national tournament, that capability speaks to overall programmatic success.

Columbia Central has two-side-numbers for years, and the Tennessee program leaned on high school faculty to get the whole squad to Wisconsin in time (read more). The father-daughter coaching duo of Brian and Alexis Vance (Mount St. Mary’s University) run the Lady Lions.

RECRUITERS

The annual tournament is a major recruiting event for varsity college rugby and USA Pathway coaches. With the combined event, the scouts came out in force. The following are those schools that I visually ID’ed, so there are probably omissions:

COLLEGE SCOUTS
Adrian Univ
Brown Univ (2)
Dartmouth College (2)
Davenport Univ
Frostburg State
Harvard Univ
Guilford College
Lindenwood Univ (2)
Univ New Haven
Newberry Univ
Penn State (2)
Quinnipiac Univ
Sacred Heart (2)
Southern Nazarene Univ
Warren Wilson

hs rugby

Harvard’s Mel Denham

To boot, USA Women’s High Performance Pathways manager Martha Daines and Pathways coach Sue Whitwell were on site and busy filing reports on the immense amount of talent on display.

TALENT

The rugby was very good. Brown University head coach Ros Chou recounted meeting Penn State head coach Kate Daley at nationals five years ago, and how both winced at the level play. But in Madison, Wis., Chou was impressed how much the game had progressed in that time, from the verbiage being used, to the on-field problem-solving that was happening.

Belmont Shore was a revelation. There was so much intrigue around a program that had a core of players with rugby experience dating back to the U8s, but with most of that experience grounded in 7s. What would that look like in a high-level 15s tournament? To boot, the back line was so physically small! Yes, they were fleet and skilled and fearless, but how would that match up against the physical specimens of the Majestics? The Whales went big, took chances and never backed down, and it was so inspiring to watch en route to their national title.

Idaho has distinguished itself. Since Eagle HS debuted at the 2022 single-school nationals, Rocky Mountain and Meridian have followed in 2023 and 2024, respectively. Each year, the new Idaho team was the breakout team of the tournament. Rocky Mountain finished 2nd last year, and Meridian oh-so-nearly made the 2024 final, falling a conversion short of DSHA in the semifinals. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that all of this good rugby is being played in Idaho. The state plays school district-sanctioned 7s in the fall and had 15 sides playing club 15s in Division I and Division II (though some of DII is not 15s).

And of course, Eagle won its first national title in its third appearance at the event, and the Mustangs got to play DSHA for the title — a bucket list item for sure. Read more.

OVERALL

The Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex is my new favorite place on earth. If the whole family travled to Madison, there were playgrounds and the most adorable professional T-ball field right on site. When the day was over, I grabbed a beer from clubhouse bar and sorted through photos and updates in the air conditioned room. The second-floor viewing decks had proper loungers, and when the sun passed behind clubhouse and the wind pulled through, and the rugby was going strong — it really was a piece of heaven.

 

The city itself sits between two lakes that is alive with boaters and sun-seekers on the weekend. The downtown is clean, uncrowded (since the university has let out for the school year), and walkable — the perfect size for a short stay. If the event is held in Madison at some point in the future, be sure to check out the view from the Capitol’s roof. Go to the Saturday morning farmer’s market, the largest in the country. And eat Culver’s custard, my favorite Midwest brand.

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HIGH SCHOOL

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