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FRONTLINE: Neighborhood

School of Hard Knocks
America’s oldest scholastic rugby team also wants to be the best.

By J.F. Pirro
FRONTLINE: Neighborhood

School of Hard Knocks
America’s oldest scholastic rugby team also wants to be the best.

On a ragtag football field at Valley Forge Middle School off Route 252 in Devon, it’s the last day of winter 2006—and it feels like it. Conestoga High School Boys Rugby Football Club is hosting the Allentown Blues, who respond to the locals’ pre-match huddled hoopla—“Stoga, Stoga, Stoga, Stoga, Stoga, Stoga, 1-2-3, Stoga”—with a more exotic New Zealand Blacks rugby chant:

“Balty lady! Doi … chicci … chicci … chugga. Mazzou … wazzou … wazzou. Ah baswah … baswah … ah-ey. Ah baswah … baswah … ah-ey.”

Within seconds of the kickoff, there’s the game’s first scrum, a pitch-out and a kick. It goes nowhere against a nasty wind that’s already claimed one casualty— a portable gas grill engulfed in flames and melting.

Less than 30 seconds later, Conestoga’s Phil Clark is down, holding his right hand over his head after banging noggins with senior co-captain John Brady. Eventually, Clark leaves in an ambulance.

Brady is so hardheaded he swore off surgery as a boy and eventually walked his way out of leg braces. He was finding himself when he found rugby his sophomore year. Before he committed, he told Conestoga coach Steve “Jo-Jo” Gunn he’d tried football and lacrosse but hated the running.

“I put my arm around him and said, ‘Son, you might not want to play this sport. You run more in rugby than in both those sports combined,’” Gunn recalls.

It’s estimated a rugby player runs five miles in one match. A noticeable physical characteristic is thick thighs, and stamina is a huge attribute. So is longevity—and in scholastic rugby circles, no other single-school varsity team anywhere has as much of that as Conestoga. With 35 continuous seasons in the books, it’s the oldest schoolboy team in the nation. Two years ago, Gunn bought the club T-shirts that read: “Conestoga Rugby: One of the first striving to be the best.”

Gunn recently handed over the reigns of Conestoga Boys RFC to assistant coach Rob Grassi. The team was started in 1971 by Clarence Culpepper, the school’s football coach at the time. He played rugby for Philadelphia RFC and went on to play for the United States National Team.

Games are typically played on Sundays between March and May. Players must cough up $75 a season to participate. They settle for club status, but they can earn varsity letters.

Along with his wife, Dawn White, an administrator for the Conestoga boys team, Gunn started the U-15 T/E Tigers, a team comprised of Valley Forge and T/E Middle School students. As a couple, they’re a match made in rugby heaven. They married during the 1999 World Cup in Edinborough, Scotland. The wedding party attended the South Africa-Scotland match, then traveled to Dublin to see U.S. matches.

Gunn’s rugby resumé runs rather long. The computer network engineer played two semesters at the University of South Carolina before joining the U.S. Navy and playing for the Millington Naval Air Station and Old Dominion University while stationed in Norfolk, Va. He spent 10 years with the Virginia Beach Rugby Club he helped assemble and remains an “old boy” (life member) of Philadelphia-Whitemarsh RFC. Gunn also has coached Bryn Mawr-Haverford Women RFC (1987-1995) and Philadelphia Women RFC (1992-1993).

In the spring of 2001, Gunn came to Conestoga so RFC president Tim Westerman could dedicate himself to the school’s girls program. One of 28 U-19 teams in the Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union, the team went undefeated last spring until they lost in the EPRU title game to State College.

Rugby Rules
There are 38 high school boys teams playing in the Delaware Valley. Conestoga is among eight in Division I. It’s one of three single-school clubs, along with Archbishop Ryan and Bishop Shanahan. There are 16 Division II teams, including those in Unionville, Coatesville, West Chester and Downingtown as well as regional teams like Delco Boys and Valley Forge Boys.

There are 14 sides in Division III, including West Chester East, Media United (a regional team) and second-tier teams from Bishop Shanahan and Unionville. They all play in the EPRU, with the goal of advancing to the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union Final Four, then the USA National High School U-19 16-team final field.

Essentially, rugby’s a game of tackle without helmets and shoulder pads—though you do wear a mouth guard. Either 7, 10 or 15 players take the field for each team. It’s required you get up more quickly than you go down. They do wear rugby shirts. Conestoga’s are school-color maroon, gray and black.

“The dads like that their sons play,” White says. “But I’ve had to have several conversations with the moms.”

Chris Christakis, a Conestoga senior last year, is the youngest of his rugby-playing siblings, which include his oldest brother, Ari (now an assistant with Stoga’s girls team), another brother, Ben, and a sister, Athen. Dad didn’t want any of them playing rugby. “He wasn’t on our side, although now he is,” Christakis says. “He thought it was a barbaric sport—and that’s what a lot of people think.”

As for the respect the “oldest” classification commands, “it doesn’t really get us anything,” says Christakis, who is now at Drexel University. “Our school doesn’t really even like us. They just built a multimillion-dollar turf stadium, but we can’t play there.”

If Episcopal Academy still had rugby, it would have the nation’s oldest schoolboy team. Narberth’s Dick Borkowski, a retired athletic director for the school, founded and coached the team in 1968. Each year, Episcopal Academy hosted a tournament. Inevitably, it met Conestoga Boys RFC. “It was a spectacular event,” Borkowski says.

Still, Conestoga’s Brady maintains the sport has a bad reputation, although “if done correctly, it’s safer than football.”

At Conestoga, they continue to do it correctly. Gunn helped organize a U-19 six-team invitational 15s tournament last May at Albright College. It was named in honor of longtime USA Rugby stalwart George Betzler. Also honored were 7s stalwarts Emilio Signes and Al Little. Signes ran a 7s camp with a 60-minute open-substitution exhibition with the help of USA Men’s National 7s Coach Al Caravelli, who used the camp to evaluate possible future USA Eagle 7s players.

The event in Reading was considered groundbreaking.

Two months prior in the game against Allentown, the tide turned once Conestoga had the wind at its back for the second half. Quyet Dang, a senior last year who entered the U.S. Marine Corps., scored from the left side. Then Brian Fadem, who also kicked for the school’s football team, missed the conversion kick but nailed a penalty point on the next trip downfield, making it 8-0 en route to an 8-5 final score.

Talk about a tough sport, though. Fadem, who’s now at Boston University, got sick at midfield in the first half. In the second, he made the key kick.

“No one on this team plays for recognition,” Christakis says. “We play for pride.”

For more information on Conestoga High School RFC, visit stogarugby.com.