Early this season, Charlotte Catholic rugby coach Brendan Keane threw out a few not-so-subtle hints to his players.
“I told them that our current seniors had never lost a game to any other North Carolina team and that they had made three straight trips to nationals – and it would be great to continue that,” Keane said.
Keane’s Cougars answered the call.
On May 12, Charlotte Catholic routed West Mecklenburg, 45-19, to win its fourth consecutive N.C. High School Rugby Association championship – fifth overall — and earn a trip to the USA Rugby National Invitational Tournament for the fourth year in a row. The national competition is this weekend in Salt Lake City, Utah.
And although the Cougars finished the season with a 9-1 record, they fulfilled their coach’s goal of remaining unbeaten against North Carolina squads; their sole loss came to Washington, D.C.’s Gonzaga College High School. Meanwhile, seniors Murphy Swancy, Liam Winters, Colin Mulligan, Jacob Brannon, Brady Smith, Andres Alvarado, Jackson Krone and Alex McGuire have the distinction of making the trip to nationals in each of their four high school seasons.
“I think that speaks to not only our players’ resolve to be good but also to the past players, who passed the tradition of excellence and the right attitude of how to approach games,” Keane said. “We’re very proud of that.”
The Cougars have some individual standouts. Junior fly-half Sam Cowley, for instance, recently played in England as a member of the USA Rugby High School All-American team. Other standouts include scrum-half Alvarado, junior number 8 Will Johnson, and Krone, who was the most valuable player of the state championship game.
But Keane, a 1997 Charlotte Catholic graduate who played at Appalachian State and for the Charlotte Rugby Club, said myriad players have been vital to the team’s success.
“It’s just been about teamwork,” he said. “In the past, we’ve had a couple of individuals who were game-breakers. This year, I don’t know if we had that. We have some very special (individual) players, but the reason we’ve done so well is sort of because of the whole group.”
This year’s squad hopes to take Catholic’s tradition of success to another level.
In 2009, the first of the Cougars’ four consecutive trips to nationals, they lost all three of their games.
“We didn’t really know what to expect that first year, so our resolve the next year was to improve by winning at least one game (at nationals),” Keane said. “We did that and came in fourth after we lost in the semifinals to eventual champion, Xavier, out of New York.”
Last year, the Cougars had another strong showing but again lost to Xavier in the semifinals, this time in overtime. Now, after making their fourth consecutive trip to nationals, the Cougars aren’t just happy to be there; they have their sights set on walking away with the championship, which results in medals for the players and a huge, silver bowl as the team trophy.
“The goal every year is always to improve,” Keane said, “and we’ve come extremely close the last few years and saw it slip through our fingers. But we want to come home with some silverware this time.”
Yet another not-so-subtle hint?