When Greg Bruce first began working as a special education teacher at Belmont High in 2007, he was juggling his newfound responsibilities with a career as a professional rugby player.
But when students kept imploring him to share his experience by opening a rugby club, he eventually acquiesced under the premise that the club would be student-led.
Bruce could not have imagined what the club would become.
What began as a small after-school activity involving 21 players quickly evolved into the Belmont Rugby Association, one of the most cohesive rugby programs in the region.
With Bruce at the helm, Belmont made it to the finals of the 2009 New England Rugby Cup championships and won the 2011 Division 2 Mass Youth Rugby Organization championship.
Belmont became a Division 1 club in 2012 and won a state championship at that level the next year.
Last year, rugby became an official MIAA sport and Belmont continued to compete against Division 1 programs with nearly twice its enrollment, falling to St. John’s Prep in the state semifinals for the second straight season.
But success is defined by more than just wins and losses in this community.
“[The program] has come quite a long way,” Bruce said. “It’s been built by many people over the years. Parents, alumni and the other community members have made it so that Belmont is able to compete at the [Division 1] level. It’s not results that determine whether we have a good season, it’s about how hard we work and how we come together.”
That inclusive atmosphere helped the Belmont girls’ team come together for a state championship in its first year as an MIAA-sanctioned program.
A handful of girls practiced with the boys’ team for several seasons before enrollment rose ahead of the 2015 season. With 17 girls ready to compete, Kathryn McCabe was able to field a 15-player team and the Belmont girls’ team was born.
A Social Studies teacher at Belmont High and former rugby standout at Boston University, McCabe could only schedule one organized scrimmage in that first year.
But with the supportive community and infrastructure in place, the girls’ team rapidly improved and last June, defeated the previous two club champions, Lincoln-Sudbury and Algonquin Regional, en route to a Division 1 state title.
“Everyone was so supportive in sharing equipment, field time, and making it feel like a really big family,” said McCabe. “We benefitted in many ways from parents’ efforts on the boys’ side over the years. And it just keeps building.”
To a degree, current seniors on both teams learned the intricate game on the fly when they began playing as underclassmen. Yet the Belmont boys’ program now has a varsity, junior varsity, and developmental team, which went undefeated for an unofficial state title last season.
Coached by former Skidmore college standout Tim Berens, the developmental team is a key component in Belmont’s plans for continued success. Last fall, Berens and players from both teams went one step further by coaching an informal Belmont middle school team in the afternoons.
“It’s been huge,” Bruce said of the developmental teams. “When we first started, one of the challenges was that none of our guys had any experience. Once you get guys coming through that have been playing for three, four years, it makes such a vast difference.”
Many of Belmont’s athletes have fallen in love with the sport, and a stunning 13 percent of the high school’s boys played rugby last season.
Seniors Laurent Brabo and Will Lozano are two of the eight most experienced members on the boys’ team, dubbed the “council of eight” due to their collective leadership.
Both Brabo and Lozano plan to play rugby in college and say they prefer the game to others. Brabo grew up playing soccer, Lozano football.
“In football, everyone puts on this macho tough-guy mask,” said Lozano, who played offensive line for four seasons at Belmont.
“But in rugby you can express yourself however you want. The coaches and players are more understanding and inclusive. And that’s what separates it from other sports.”
Jessica Rosenstein, a star senior on the girls’ team, can also attest to that sense of inclusion.
Bruce has organized team trips to exotic locations in 2011, ’13, ’15, and ’17, and has another trip planned for April 2019. Last spring, the girls’ team joined the boys in Chile.
“Rugby is unique in that it’s about family, community and acceptance,” said Rosenstein. “With rugby, all athletes interact. We all go to each other’s games. I remember our first game [in 2015] at Lincoln-Sudbury, it wasn’t even an official game, but the boys’ team came out after practice and supported us. We’re one big family.”
Rosenstein played soccer during her first two high school seasons, but gave it up to concentrate on rugby year round, and is now a captain of the Northeast Academy Olympic developmental team.
Next year, she will attend rugby powerhouse Lindenwood University and hopes someday to play in the Olympics.
Yet like the many coaches and alumni who have gone to successful rugby careers after playing at Belmont, she plans to continue giving back to the Belmont Rugby family after graduation.
Nate Weitzer can be reached at email@example.com