Compton Team Embraces Rugby
Compton Team Embraces Rugby
While the Southern California single-school 15s playoffs are being held, SoCal also held a 7s championships for emerging teams - Varsity Green.
The idea is to get players on the field, and not put the demands of roster size that 15s has, and so the teams learn the game in competition with 7s, and if there ever was proof that this is a good idea, you can find it at Centennial High School.
This season, Centennial HS in Compton, Calif. started a girls and a boys rugby team. With Centennial HS teacher Emo Pula, and her husband, Ian, coaching, they took a group of athletes who had never seen a rugby ball before and made them winners. In this school and this town which has a national reputation for being a pretty rough place to grow up, only one player on the boys team was familiar with rugby, Ian Pula, Jr., the coaches' son.
Centennial played im the LA Conference, alongside Desert Sands, Adolfo Camarillo, and Kings. And they not only played, they played well, winning every single 7s game in the LA Conference.
"We were blessed because the school got behind what we were doing," said Emo Pula. "The dues, the CIPP, is a lot of money for these kids, but the ASB [Associated Student Body] came through and the faculty donated money to help. We were actually the only school able to host games. The school supported us and let us use the field, and that was a great help."
The experience was new for the players in many ways. Early on, in training, when a player got the ball, he would stop. As a lineman in football, he'd explain, he wasn't supposed to run with the ball.
"They looked at us and asked 'can we run with the ball,' and we're saying 'yes! Everyone can run with it,'" said Pula. "It was all so new to them."
New also was rugby's team culture, a culture that extends outside of your own team and considers the opponent part of the community. Players had to be taught to cut out the swearwords during games, and treat each other, and their opponents, with greater respect.
"It came together really quickly," said Pula. "How they became close to each other was beautiful. After our first games when our captain came in and said we were a family, that was something we all understood."
The team cheered for their opponents, and brought the opposition in for a combined huddle and post-game chat. All of that, as well as feeding the opposing teams, was new to the players, and the culture started to spread. The players were more disciplined, more disciplined in their language, and started to become closer as a team.
They had their standouts, of course. John Edwards led the team in scoring and was also a terror on defense with his tackling. A powerful runner, Edwards was aided by DeAndre Collins, the smallest player on the team, but certainly one of the fastest. With Edwards powering through tacklers and Collins running around them, Centennial got superb leadership from captain Ricardo "Chief" Medina. As well as being the captain, Medina was outstanding on defense and was the setup man for the team's try-scorers.
"Teams always hated it when Chief had the ball because he is 6-4, 290 pounds," said Pula. "His high knee runs are very scary."
Eric Aguilera had no idea about drop-kicking before the season, but learned it quickly and was just about perfect with his conversion attempts.
"It was a great start as our boys went to the HS Championship," said Pula. "My boys team is 100% Centennial students and these boys never heard of rugby or knew anything of rugby, but what they saw in my classroom. They were a tough group, I had to deal with discipline from the start, but I'm proud of them and the achievements of taking such an amazing sport to heart. I knew these kids would be good at rugby because they have natural talent. Everyone looks at us strange when we say, 'we have a rugby team in Compton at Centennial High?' This has been amazing and positive experience for our school and community, most importantly for our students."
At the championship tournament, Edwards and Medina both picked up injuries. The loss of those players on a squad of ten was a tough blow, and they finished 6th. But, despite being the only heavily-minority team at the tournament, they found acceptance. Coaches came to them to compliment them on their play. Once they lost games - their first losses of the season - they found opposing teams offering the hand of sportsmanship to congratulate their efforts.
And people noticed.
"The school rugby season is over and they needed a club to play for so they could keep playing," said Pula. "We looked around, but weren't sure if we could find one."
They found one. Belmont Shore U19s, which has produced national team players Mike Te'o and Joseph Taufete'e, offered Centennial players scholarships for their dues in order to make it easier to play. Some of the Centennial players, in fact, will be part of the Belmont Shore U19 contingent at the Las Vegas Invitational next week.
"It's been great, such a blessing," said Pula. "We've even seen their grades go up. We've seen kids go from Fs to As. It's been an amazing experience."
The Centennial HS team was coached by Emo and Ian Pula. The players are: Eric Aguilera, DeAndre Collins, Adam Cortes, John Edwards, Ricardo Gonzalez, Alondro King, Ricardo Medina (captain), Ian Pula, Jr., Daniel Ramos, Louie Vidaury