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Program Spotlight: St Thomas Aquinas

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Program Spotlight: St Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas in action against Germantown. Mike Jurczak photo.

It was all set up beautifully for St Thomas Aquinas this season—the Overland Park, Kan. private school has already logged wins against four ranked teams, and was set to go on tour; then it all ended.

The COVID-19 outbreak halted the season, and cut off their tour to Ireland, literally as they were driving to the airport. Having beaten Bixby, KC Junior Blues, Germantown, and Penn HS, Aquinas was poised to make a splash on the national stage.

But thinking about what might have been isn’t what Head Coach Tim Kluempers is about. The former USA prop, Kluempers has been the only Head Coach Aquinas has ever had, and he is philosophical about one of his strongest teams ever. 

Kluempers became Head Coach of St. Thomas Aquinas in 2007 thanks to his daughter, Janie. It was Janie who came to her dad and said that her classmates at Aquinas wanted to play some rugby, and would he coach them?

I Don't Need Money

Kluempers went to the school’s athletic department, laid out how the game would benefit the students, and the school said “OK, fine, you won’t get any money.”

“I told them I didn’t need money, I just needed to play under the school name,” Kluempers said.

It expanded from there.

“The school has been great,” he said. They started to get access to facilities. Supporting the team kick-started Janie Kluempers into the rugby world. Now a licensed athletic trainer, she has worked for the Kansas State rugby team, Eagle Impact Rugby Academy, and USA national teams from age-grade on up. 

Kluempers quickly embraced his role as coach and pushed the rugby ethos hard.

“It’s about how the kids can be better people,” said the coach. “We take care of everyone. We have seniors on the team and what we want is when they see a freshman in the halls they say hi, give ‘em a high five. Stuff like that, that inclusion of everyone, goes a long way. Are you a star football player, or a kid who maybe hasn’t played a sport before, and whether you’re athletic or not, you’re part of the team and you’re coached. You get one little freshman and then some senior is saying hi to him in the hall, it’s amazing what that does for a kid.”

Leave It Better Than You Found It

Conscious as he has been about how the sport can be viewed, Kluempers has always tried to teach his players the value of leaving a good impression. His players clean up their trash (early on in his tenure they failed to do so and they ran a lap for every piece of trash Kluempers has had to pick up). The staff at Aquinas tell him they don’t have to do that, but he insists.

“We do have to do it,” he said. “We leave the place better than when we found it. As we got more established the school told me they would be checking the boys’ grades to make sure they were sticking with their schoolwork. I was like ‘perfect.’ That’s what I want. I want them held to a standard every day.”

While a private school, St. Thomas Aquinas isn’t a rich kid’s place. There are kids from all walks of life there, and Kluempers makes sure they are all able to play and travel. He brings everyone to HS Nationals, for example.  And if they can’t afford it?

“You have to give something: time talent or treasure. If you don’t have the money you can fundraise the heck out of it. We have people who will help, and that’s the beauty of the game,” he said.

The way Kluempers involves his players might best be shown during the HS Nationals Tier II final in 2017. With overtime almost up against Charlotte Catholic, Kluempers started to ring the changes, bringing on small, young players, often in place of bigger established upperclassmen.

“They were saying: ‘coach, what are you doing?’“

But Kluempers remembers back to a tiebreaker he had with St. Thomas of Houston one year when they went through 58 kicks in the penalty kick tiebreaker before the Houston team won the region and went to nationals. Aquinas had a very good team that year, but missed out. He wasn’t going to be caught without kickers again. Every player he subbed on at the end of overtime was a kicker. One of them, tiny Sam Masterson, slotted the clincher to beat Charlotte Catholic. Two years later he was the team’s starting flyhalf.

The Tour That Wasn't

Masterson and the rest were all set to tour Ireland after having beaten four ranked teams on the trot. But the shutdown halted that just hours before they were set to go. Irish Rugby Tours, which set up the tour, sprang into action to save the players and their families money.

If they had just tried to issue refunds, deposits and change fees might well have been lost forever. Certainly, IRT knew not all the money could be refunded from the airlines. So IRT instead worked up a deal. The tour was delayed a few months.

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“So we’re going next year,” said Kluempers. “George Hook and Irish Rugby Tours were great. It wasn’t their fault travel was halted, and they made it so we wouldn’t lose anything and could do our tour.”

Players who graduated were given the option to keep their trip, and just use it whenever they wanted. They took it.

It was a good team-based solution to a big problem. St. Thomas Aquinas takes that approach all the time.

“We have a strong team culture, and the kids keep coming back,” said Kluempers. “For me the indication that we’re doing OK is that the younger brothers come out to play. If the parents weren’t happy with what we were doing, they wouldn’t do that.”