April 19, 2014

Elyria
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Foreign sport hits home

Elyria Catholic falls in love with rugged, addictive game

Dane Szente had every intention of savoring the ease of spring last year. Coming off the rigors of football and wrestling, a change of pace might have been nice. Kick back in the warm weather, maybe lift some weights, hang with friends.
But it was in the waning minutes of civics class that Szente’s plans went out the window. His history teacher, Don Guion, floated the idea of starting a rugby team.
Guion began scribbling on the chalk board the rudimentary rules. If anyone was interested, he continued, there would be a meeting after school. Szente was one of 15 kids to show up. Within a month, practices were under way and that number had swollen to 20.
Elyria Catholic had a rugby team.
Fast forward one year later and the Panthers have undergone an impressive transition — establishing a new club, learning a foreign sport, then mastering it. Last Saturday, Elyria Catholic knocked off St. Ignatius, St. Edward and Mayfield — three schools with well-established rugby organizations — in consecutive rounds to sweep through the Division II Northeast Ohio rugby championship.
“When we first started playing this game, none of us understood it,” said Szente, a junior flanker. “We just thought you kicked the ball around and run up and down the field. But when you start playing it’s addictive, and now we’re getting pretty good at it. We’re not fooling around. Now, we’re organized. We’re a team.”
The Ohio High School Athletic Association does not sanction rugby. In fact, St. Edward is the only school in the state to recognize it as a varsity sport. At Elyria Catholic, rugby’s classified as a club sport.
However it’s defined, rugby is an international sport far out of the American mainstream. Often compared to football because of its sheer physicality and emphasis on tackling, rugby, in fact, more closely resembles soccer. It uses a prolate sphere-shaped leather ball, similar in weight to a volleyball, fatter than a football. Each team starts 15 players and they progress up the field by running with the ball in hand or by kicking it. Players may pass the ball laterally or backward; unlike football, it can’t be thrown forward.
Like a proud father, Guion has watched rugby take root within the Elyria Catholic community. A crowd of 45 fans, made up largely of parents and students, came out to watch the Panthers in their final home game of the season Thursday against Hudson.
“No one in our family knew anything about rugby until last year,” said Beth Shepard, who has two kids on the team, Kyle, a senior, and Ryan, a freshman. “But from that first day of practice, whenever they came home, they were just grinning ear-to-ear.”
One of rugby’s unique traits is the variety of athletes it can draw. Kyle Shepard is tall and burly, built like an offensive lineman. Szente is shorter, more stout, a natural wrestler or linebacker. Then there’s Clay Khoma, tall and lithe, a mere string bean.
Where football allows only a select few to touch the ball, rugby demands everyone have a hand.
“It’s one of the things I think everyone noticed at first,” said Khoma. “The skinny guys and big guys all have to help. We all run, we all block and we all kick.”
Guion fell in love with rugby 11 years ago when he was first asked to play by a few friends when he was a freshman at St. Bonaventure. For the last six years, he’s played for the Cleveland Rovers club team.
One of the traditions he has helped maintain in the sport is the after-game social. Instead of retreating back to the visitor’s bus, opposing teams are invited to hang out with the Panthers, as EC parents provide food and drink.
In a time when positive sportsmanship can be increasingly hard to find, it’s a pleasant change of pace.
“Everyone just leaves their aggressions on the field,” said Guion. “You don’t see that in other sports. It shows how to be classy and how to be humble, whether you win or lose.”

The stands aren’t filled. In fact, there are no stands. The only seating available at Elyria Catholic’s soccer field is limited to the grass and the lawn chairs dragged out from the parking lot. But seating arrangements — or the lack thereof — don’t stop fans from screaming and cheering after Joe Assily scores the game-winning “try” — a five-point score when an attacking team grounds the ball in the goal area.
With their 27-22 overtime victory Thursday, the Panthers have strung together their first successful rugby season at 7-3 overall.
“This is what we’ve started,” said Kyle Shepard. “It feels amazing to get something off the ground like this and to be successful at it. No one thought we could get this thing actually going. And definitely no one ever thought we’d be this successful.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or palpern@chroniclet.com.

BY THE NUMBERS …
7 Victories by Elyria Catholic in the Panthers’ first full rugby season.
15 Players who showed up for the first meeting after school.
1 Division II Northeast Ohio title won by EC.