Belmont Shows It Can Be Done In Public School
Belmont Shows It Can Be Done In Public School
Single-school rugby is the goal in the sport, but it’s been difficult to get non-private schools to embrace the game—but here is one public school that has.
Belmont High School is in Massachusetts, and with rugby now part of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), rugby can be a varsity sport at any school in the state. That’s a major hurdle negotiated, but it’s a hurdle that might have proved too difficult if programs like Belmont HS hadn’t done the hard work already.
While MIAA sanction has only been in place for a few years, the Belmont HS rugby program actually started back in the fall of 2006. Now with a state champion in both boys and girls, the program has well over 100 kids playing, Belmont still remembers its humble beginnings.
Greg Bruce had just started as a teacher at Belmont HS. He and his wife had settled in the Boston area after traveling the world and Bruce started teaching at Belmont, which is a relatively small school district just northwest of Cambridge.
“I had played rugby in New Zealand and was playing with the Boston Irish Wolfhounds,” said Bruce. “Some kids caught wind of my being a rugby player, and they were interested.”
One kid in particular, Joe Arkinstall, who was from England, said Belmont HS needed a rugby team. They nagged and persisted, but Bruce was reluctant. It was his first year on the job, and he didn’t necessarily want to make waves.
But eventually, with Arkinstall beating the bushes, the kids showed they were interested. Bruce spoke with the school’s athletic director, who OK’d rugby as an activities club, but didn’t approve any games. They could practice though, and soon had as many as 25 kids learning the game.
And people in the community found out.
One day, a New Zealander named Derek Tommy was driving his truck down the street. He saw a bunch of kids running around with a rugby ball and slammed on the brakes. What’s going on here?
“We were blessed and fortunate he stopped,” said Bruce. Pretty soon, Tommy was helping coach. Then a local middle school teacher, Adam Zilcoski, who had played at Penn State, was involved.
Those three have been with the program ever since.
Despite some cajoling, the Belmont AD stayed with the policy of no games against other teams, but for the 2007-08 school year, the policy was changed. They’d proved there was interest, and the parents were eager to see their sons on the field.
Turns out that they had learned a lot in that first year.
Playing at the Irish Cultural Center in Canton, Mass., where the Wolfhounds play, Belmont went 4-1. The next year they joined the Massachusetts Youth Rugby league in Division 2 and made it to the New England D2 final. They got there thanks to a drop goal in overtime to beat Portland out of Maine. In the final they lost to a Brookline team that had future collegiate All Americans Dimitri Efthimiou and Jordan Badia-Bellinger, but still it was another sign that this program had potential.
Despite a losing record in 2010, Belmont rebounded the next year and won MYRO’s D2. The program also sent its first player to a HS All American camp—Christian Backus, who went on to play rugby at Penn State. Then, in 2012, the team made the move up to D1.
“We got some questions from parents on whether moving up was a wise move,” said Bruce. “We would be playing against teams like St. John’s Prep and BC High. The schools were bigger—we have about 600 boys in our school and they each have about 1,300. And their athletes were just bigger. Would we just be getting beat up?”
Not so much. Skilled and smart, Belmont went 6-4 in 2012, and in 2013 won MYRO’s D1, beating Bishop Hendricken (which is based in Rhode Island by played in Massachusetts) in the final. Hendricken got revenge in 2014 in a 21-19 nailbiter.
“That was an amazing final,” said Bruce. “Both teams left it all out there.”
In 2015 in the semifinals, Belmont’s regular goalkicker left the field injured after a late hit. Belmont had a penalty near the sideline—a tough kick—but with time almost up they needed to kick it to win. One player immediately volunteered.
“He didn’t hesitate,” said Bruce. “He just said ‘I want it.’ There was a long pause in the game because of the injury, and you know the moment can get into a kid’s head, but he didn’t let it.”
The kid was Darren Chan, who would go on to captain Northeastern University, and become a Scholz Award nominee. When the time came to kick, Chan thumped the ball to the posts; it seemed low but just skipped off the crossbar and over. Ballgame. Belmont was in the final.
They lost that final to BC High, and then St. John’s Prep defeated Belmont in the state semis in 2016 and 2017. But still Belmont, smaller in player size and talent pool, was right there competing. BC High won state, now the MIAA championship, in 2016 and 2017, and then outmuscled Belmont in the 2018 final.
But in 2019 it all fell Belmont’s way. After losing to St. John’s in the league opener, they went on a tear.
“We took a tour to Spain which was great, and we lost to a team there, but other than that we didn’t lose any games after that first game,” said Bruce.
And that included the final, defeating St. John’s to close it all out.
Girls Champs As Well
The girls, meanwhile, developed in the last few years. For a while some girls interested in the game played with the boys. Kelly Joe Miller was the first girl to do that. But eventually they started a girls-only team in 2015. Kate McCabe, who played for Boston University and the Boston Women’s Club, had come on as a history teacher and started coaching with the boys team in 2014. A year later she was Head Coach of the girls team. After a couple of years getting their feet under them, Belmont girls won the state championship in 2017, 2018, and 2019. McCabe was named Coach of the Year in MIAA. Dee Nash and Lauren Poirier also have been instrumental on the coaching staff.
“Kate has done a great job and is an incredible person,” said Bruce. “She gives her all for the team and I can’t say enough wonderful things about her.”
For Bruce, the creation of the girls team was really beneficial to boys team as well. They cooperate as one program, train together, and do most of their activities together.
“Last year we were warming up the boys for the final, but the girls were already playing their final and the boys kept wanting to watch them,” said Bruce. “So finally we just let them go watch the end of the game. They loved it. Then the girls got their trophy and went up into the stands and cheered for the boys. When the boys won they swarmed onto the field.”
McCabe had been teaching at Belmont for some years, but she was still playing with Boston. Once she retired from playing, Bruce immediately asked her to coach with the boys team. Five girls were training with the boys at the time, but once they heard there was a woman coach, the number increased to 19.
Like with the boys team, the girls basically trained all through the first year. And the equality with the boys' experiences didn't end there.
"I can't overemphasize how important it was that Greg reached out to me and asked me to coach," McCabe told Goff Rugby Report. "He just said it would be amazing to have me on the coaching staff. And he shared everything. We weren't in the MIAA for the first two years, we weren't a varsity program, so all of the work Greg had done to get field space and equipment, he just loaned to us. We figured out how to share fields, share equipment. It wasn't a competition, it was a combined club from the beginning."
McCabe said he has talked to other teams in Massachusetts and Belmont's story is unique. They are one club. Yes it's a varsity school team, but they keep the best aspects of club life—everyone is together.
The boys and girls all combine their efforts. They participate in preseason events together, and that "promotes that we're all doing the same thing," said McCabe.
And the parents have followed. In 2016 the president of the parent leadership group had a son playing rugby, and then his daughter took up the sport also. Right away he started pulling more girls parents into the club, and they have stayed.
How It Works
While certainly Bruce being a teacher in the school was hugely influential, sustaining the program has needed more than just one person. Along with Bruce, Tommy, and Zilcoski, coaches Tim Berens, Tony Dow, Jesse Borle, and Peter Rosenmeier—a dad who loved the program so much he now helps coach the development team—have been instrumental in keeping the program strong. McCabe, Nash, and Poirier are back every year, in part because the girls make it rewarding, but they are also just dedicated to the job.
It also helps that because rugby is a varsity sport within MIAA, coaches get small stipends from the school as is policy for all varsity sports in public schools.
But there’s more to Belmont’s sustained success than that.
“Everything we do, boys and girls, we do together,” said Bruce. “We’ve made it such a big part of the program. We have our end-of-year banquet together. We have a parent board, and it’s combined for boys and girls. They’ve been incredibly helpful for us. Our coaches work together.”
In short, Belmont HS rugby doesn’t abandon the rugby camaraderie just because it’s now a varsity program. They embrace the promotion of good character, sportsmanship, and making it a family, and that’s why the program has lasted.
“More athletic directors are listening about why rugby is beneficial,” Bruce said. “When we talk about it, we talk a lot about the culture and ethos of the game. The community has embraced us, and that’s huge.”