Andover loses bid for rugby title
The Andover High boys’ rugby squad was determined to repeat as Division 2 state champions, rallying from an early 12-point deficit Saturday in the title match against Milton at Fort Devens.
Though the comeback was valiant, the Warriors’ penalty kick – which would have tied the score with seconds remaining – sailed just wide, and Andover fell, 15-12.
“It was a tough loss,” Andover senior cocaptain Sam Kefferstan said.
“We wanted to come in and defend the title, but coming back from last year [when we lost so many seniors] we didn’t have the size. But the comeback that we had in the second half; everyone played to the best of their abilities. It was great to see everybody come together.”
Andover, which finished at 5-4, is part of a burgeoning movement under the Massachusetts Youth Rugby Association, which hosted Saturday’s finals.
Established in 2010, it features seven divisions, including Division 1, 1A, and 2 for boys, along with groups for emerging boys’ and girls’ teams.
As the sport’s exposure has grown — rugby is being televised with increasing frequency and sevens rugby, a variant in which teams field seven players, instead of 15, with shorter matches, will be part of the 2016 Summer Olympics — so too has youth interest.
It’s a positive development according to Andover third-year coach, Chris Ranwell , who started his 26-year playing career at age 8 in England.
“The real goal that I have with the team is to get 25 kids who never played together learning a new sport and enjoying it,” he said.
“Most of the kids say to me that it’s the best true team sport they’ve ever played . . . And the camaraderie that they feel on and off the field is different from any other sport.
“The other thing is that a good percentage of players who leave and go to college end up playing. It opens up a whole new sports area that they may never have considered. [You can] play rugby into your late 40s . . . it’s not like American football, where if you’re on the high school team and you don’t make the college team you’ll probably never strap on your boots again.”
For the 5-foot-10, 155-pound Kefferstan, being involved in Andover rugby goes beyond practices and games.
As a team leader, he’s responsible for fund-raising, recruiting players, and coordinating field availability with town officials.
Kefferstan will defer a year at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he plans to join the club rugby team, to complete National Outdoor Leadership School training.
Given rugby’s non-MIAA sports status, such circumstances tend to be very familiar within the state’s high school rugby circle.
“Something I’ve loved about rugby since the beginning is that it’s heavily student run,” Kefferstan said.
“We are actually run through the Andover Youth Services. Since we’re not a varsity sport it’s difficult to work with the school when establishing a club, so the support has been fantastic. When you’re a player on this team you really have to contribute.”
But as the sport’s popularity grows, the possibility remains that rugby will one day be recognized under the MIAA umbrella.
“I absolutely do,” Kefferstan said, when asked if he can envision such a scenario.
“Every year we have more games to play, more people willing to watch games and more players on the team.”
In addition to the Andover-Milton final, Belmont toppled Bishop Hendricken (R.I.), 17-5, to capture its second Division 1 title in three years.
In early April, Belmont (5-1) ended a winning streak by St. John’s Prep that had stretched more than seven years.
In the Division 1A final, Scituate defeated Needham, 14-10, in a back-and-forth game with lots of heavy hits. The rain was a factor, especially in the second half when it picked up considerably and led to a number of dropped balls for both teams.
Mass Rivals field talented teams
Mass Rivals, an AAU basketball program that has built a reputation for developing young, raw talent, and practices twice weekly at Reading Memorial High, sent two squads to the Super 16 tournament last weekend at Connecticut College.
The freshman team, which played in the U17 division, lost all three games. But it was still an opportunity for players to measure their abilities against some of the area’s best.
“That’s probably my most talented group,” coach Vin Pastore said of the team. “It has a lot of top players in New England.
“Saul Phiri , a 6-foot-3-inch freshman guard who started this past year at Haverhill High, is my best scorer in that division. He played well in all three games, creating off the dribble and hitting the long ball.”
Pastore also believes that Tomas Murphy , a 14-year-old from St. Mark’s who currently stands 6-feet-7, will “be one of the best players in the country as he progresses.” His older brothers, Erik, (senior at Florida) and Alex (sophomore at Duke), are both Division 1 players.
The second team was made up of sophomores, and also competed in an older division, where it compiled a 1-2 record.
For a program that most recently helped develop the game of Haverhill’s Noah Vonleh (New Hampton School and Indiana University signed), the talent pool remains deep throughout the program.
“We have the highest-rated Boston kid in 6-foot-9-inch Goodluck Okonoboh,” Pastore said, “and the highest-rated sophomore from the city in 6-foot-1-inch guard Jalen Adams, [who started at Melrose High before transferring to Cushing Academy]. Both are phenomenal, athletic players. And, of course, there is Kaleb Joseph from Nashua. I’m fortunate to have a lot of talent in the program right now.”