Rebuilt for Success

No one knew what to expect from Charlotte Catholic when rugby season rolled around this year. The five-time defending N.C. High School Rugby Association champions, who have finished as a Top 10 national team each year since 2009, were going to have to rebuild their program from the ground up and that had a lot of players, coaches and fans questioning what it meant for the future of Cougar rugby.

(Left to right) Travis Manning, coach Ramon Villacura and Maxim Bennett have overcome the challenges of having a smaller, less-experienced team and now have the Cougars gunning for their sixth straight state title.

(Left to right) Travis Manning, coach Ramon Villacura and Maxim Bennett have overcome the challenges of having a smaller, less-experienced team and now have the Cougars gunning for their sixth straight state title.

Last year’s 10-1 squad graduated 27 seniors, most all of whom were starters and top contributors, and said goodbye to coach Brendan Keane, a 1997 graduate of Charlotte Catholic and former rugby player at Appalachian State, who started the Cougar program in 2004 and spearheaded their success.

A team of once 60-plus athletes dwindled to nearly half its former size and as the 2014 roster was constructed with whispers and doubts echoing through the rugby world, new head coach Ramon Villacura was a man with a plan ready to silence the naysayers.

A native of Chile, Villacura first moved to the United States in 2000 in order to help his son, Nicolas, further his rugby career. They landed in the Charlotte area and by 2004, Villacura had already started a rugby program at Berry Academy. Three years later, he initiated the program at East Mecklenburg but it wasn’t long before he jumped at the opportunity to start teaching and assistant coaching at Charlotte Catholic – where Nicolas was in school.

“I’ve been playing rugby since I was 12 and coaching since I was 19 and living in Chile,” Villacura said. “By the time we moved and my son was a student at Catholic, I was doing double-duty, coaching my high school and helping coach his team. So making the move to the assistant position at Catholic made sense.”

With seven years of assistant coaching experience at Catholic under his belt, it seemed only natural that Villacura was the guy for the job when Keane announced his retirement. But the transition wasn’t easy as Villacura entered into a program that’s become known as one of the most prestigious in the nation.

“There were a lot of expectations about what would happen this year,” he said. “We lost 27 seniors from last year and were left with only three or four upcoming seniors that could start. We didn’t have a strong, solid program to come back to. At the beginning of the season, our kids had big question marks in their heads. They knew me as some guy who helped but not as a head coach.”

But Villacura didn’t waste any time, ready to make it known to the Cougar athletes that he meant business and wasn’t going to let the program suffer.

“I asked them at the beginning of the season to trust each other and trust me – nothing but that,” he said. “If you put yourself in the position to be trusted by others, and you can trust someone else, you can build a team from
that.”

From there, Villacura took inventory of the size, talent and abilities of his smaller-than-usual team and realized that if they were going to keep up the winning tradition at Catholic, they were going to need to change their style of play. After graduating the majority of the pack, including key flankers, Villacura decided they’d need to switch their style to rely more on speed, agility and craftiness with minimal contact as opposed to the full contact, hammering teams of prior years.

“Last year, we were bigger and had more players so it was all about contact, contact, contact,” he said. “This year, we don’t have big guys so we’ve learned to move the ball quickly and faster than our opponents. We outrun them. I had to change the philosophy of the team. Now, the less contact the better.”

And the changes have paid off in big ways. With a completely different approach to rugby and a much smaller team than the nationally-ranked teams of years prior, Villacura’s genius has translated to wins. The Cougars are averaging 45 points per game to establish a 14-1 record, with only one loss to Washington D.C.’s Gonzaga – the No. 3 ranked team in the nation according to Rugbymag.com. Even with all the changes, they’ve toppled opponents to go on and win the conference, crack the Top 10 national rankings and will compete on May 16 for their sixth consecutive state title.

“Everyone is happy,” Villacura said. “Parents are watching the game and have been shocked at the adjustments and how they’ve paid off. Our results have historically been the same as other years, but everything is different. All the guys can pass, all the guys can sack – they can do everything and that’s because we rely on
skill.”

Villacura has help rebuilding the Cougar team from assistant coach Matias Newton. Newton, a professional rugby player, moved from Argentina for six months to help Villacura during his own off-season. Once he wraps up at Catholic, he’ll head to Barcelona, Spain to play on their national team. The duo has created a season of Catholic rugby that no one saw coming.

And a sixth state title would be the icing on the cake after a very sweet season.

To do so, Villacura will be counting on seniors Travis Manning and Maxim Bennett – two players that Villacura said have made a monumental difference on this year’s team.

“Travis knows everything,” Villacura said. “He runs, he’s our highest scorer and top tackler. He’s an incredible athlete and it’s all mental for him. Physically, he doesn’t come across that way, but he’s one of the best rugby players out there.

“Maxim is the team captain…we lost so many players that I had to reinvent the team and give players different positions. He was one of those guys. He was taken away from the pack to play with the backs and he’s been perfect. It’s unbelievable.”

Regardless of what happens in the state championship, Villacura is ready to keep the Cougar tradition alive. And with one year as their head coach to his name, he had one answer as to why the program continues to be successful even in a season of
adversity.

“The kids,” he answered. “Straightforward, it’s the kids. Every kid needs some guidance and advice but their sense of dedication and sense of pride for their school makes everything they do and the way they play a non-negotiable. They continue to raise the bar in the same way they overcame the expectations of this year. That’s why this program will continue to be successful.”

 

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