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Santa Clarita's Rugby Team
Fighting towards Postseason Glory
March, 2006 - Issue #17
It's 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and coach Andy Smith sits in his classroom at Canyon High School, surrounded by more than a dozen young men. School has ended and Smith's North L.A. County Wildcats - the first-ever high school rugby team in the Santa Clarita Valley - is arriving for practice.

It's a typical gathering as high school young men go. The guys are laughing as the conversation bounces between classes, girls and grades.

Mostly, though, the guys are talking about rugby. They're talking about the passion that draws them to Smith's office twice a week. They're talking about why they play a sport that remains a mystery to most of their peers.

"When I came out, I just wanted to hit some people," says Canyon senior Javier Lozano. "But you fall in love with it."

Fellow senior and team captain Chris Barnes concurs.

"All I want to do is eat, sleep and play rugby," he says.

For Smith, that kind of talk is music. It was his idea to launch the valley's rugby program this season, though he wondered what kind of turnout it would generate.

"I didn't even think we'd really have enough players," Smith says. "But I promised I'd [start the program] this year, so I figured even if I only get 15 guys and they're tripping over their own feet, I'd field a team. But these guys are some of the best athletes in this school."

There are 35 athletes on the Wildcats. Thirty-one are from Canyon High and four come from Valencia High. As a non-CIF sanctioned sport, rugby doesn't adhere to the typical school boundaries, though the team plays its home games on Canyon's football field.

The Wildcats play in the Central Conference of the Southern California Rugby Football Union (SCRFU), where they compete against teams from San Pedro, Hacienda Heights, Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. The Southern California region comprises 15 teams ranging from South Orange County to San Luis Obispo.

Most of those teams have existed much longer than the Wildcats, but Smith has guided his team to a 4-0 start in its inaugural season. And he's got his guys thinking big.

"This team is definitely going to be playing in the post season," Smith says. "I'm certain we'll be playing for the Southern California championships."

The Wildcats are ambitious, but why not? As tough as their opponents may be, most of the players overcame an even greater challenge just to get to play.

They convinced mom and dad to allow it.

Rugby is not a gentle sport. The forerunner of American-style football, it involves hitting and tackling, and odds wrinkles like rucking (where players attempt to dislodge the ball from an opponent by kicking it) and the scrum.

And unlike American football, rugby makes little allowance for pads and no one wears a helmet.

"My mom said, 'don't you get hurt in that?'" senior Jake Johnson says. "I had to have Mr. Smith talk to her."

Says Smith: "Parents are sometimes concerned because rugby has a reputation. You have to be tough when you get out there, but rugby's also a gentlemen's sport."

It's a rugby tradition that following a match, both teams sit down together for a meal.

"The idea is, you leave it on the field," Johnson says.

Rugby isn't only for guys, either. The Wildcats girls' team, also in its first year, is 3-0 and has already beaten Fullerton, one of the best teams in California, 29-0.

Smith hopes boy and girls rugby will catch on in the SCV, but he knows sports like soccer and Little League Baseball are "incredibly entrenched" in the community.

Rugby has advantages, though.

"One attraction is that it's not a big financial investment to play," he says. "All you need is a ball and grass, and maybe a lot of shirts ... they tear."
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