Despite being proven right, Jim O’Hara admits his prediction might have seemed foolish, even with the benefit of hindsight. That’s why he still sounds a little sheepish when conceding that he wasn’t exactly shocked when Rye’s fledgling rugby program won a state championship.
“Coming into this year, we said very realistically that knowing the competition and the talent we had, our goal was to win the state,” said O’Hara, a first-year head coach. “I know it was a high goal to set, but I thought it was realistic.”
He was right. In just their second year of competition, the Garnets swept to a Division II state championship. They won in a slog, beating the bigger, more physical Saratoga Mustangs 3-0 in the rain on June 5 at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Ithaca.
“It was super emotional,” senior captain Bert Oberlander said. “A lot of us just started playing the sport. We started from not knowing it at all to winning a state championship. That was a great feeling.”
Rye left little doubt all season to its intentions. The club won all nine games it played, including two to win the Metropolitan division title and then two more at the state final four.
Under O’Hara, who was an assistant last year but had coached previously at state power Xavier, the Garnets established a fast-paced attack. (They beat Corning Rugby Club 48-5 in the state semifinals after routing Rockaway Rugby Club 49-10 in the divisional final.) However, they also proved they could win a defensive struggle in the state final.
Playing on a wet field, Rye had trouble breaking through Saratoga’s front line, but the team managed to score the game’s only points when senior Santi Mascolo drilled a penalty kick with less than 10 minutes remaining.
“We thought it was our only chance and it really was, so we took it,” Oberlander said.
The win completed a quick evolution for the program, which was established as a club team at Rye in the fall of 2014. The sport is not sanctioned by the NYSPHSAA, the state’s organizing body for high school sports, and is entirely self-funded.
That dynamic has left the program looking up the totem pole at the school’s other spring teams and fighting for field time to practice. Still, the student body has responded well. Over 50 players joined in the club’s first year and that number increased by another 40 percent this spring.
“Kids were coming from different areas, so they were able to draw a lot of them in,” said junior Cameron Kamer, who was integral in founding the program. “We’ve even had players from the theater and arts department. They were coming from every corner. Some people were eager to try it. Some got their friends to try it. Some people see us play and say, ‘Oh my God. I need to play that.’ “
Rye hopes its state title can help the program earn even more recognition from the students and the school itself.
“I think it opens eyes and earns a lot of respect,” said O’Hara, who is also the director of the guidance department at the high school. “I had an english teacher say to me, ‘I didn’t even know we had a rugby team.’ Winning definitely gives us credibility.”
So could the success of the club’s less experienced players. In the state final, Rye started three complete newcomers to the sport — Tyler Reno, Shane Concavage and Jack McSweeney. In fact, due to injury, McSweeney stepped in midseason at scrumhalf, a position that plays a central role in the game.
“I think that was the most surprising thing,” O’Hara said. “Jack, Tyler Reno, Shane, they are all strong football players and they stepped in this year. Tyler and Shane started every game. They just took to it immediately.”
The learning curve has been steep for Rye rugby as a whole. If nothing else, the results have proven it.