Chelmsford pioneers its first rugby team
Last June, Clay Casaletto, Jake Harrison, and Patrick O’Neill picked up a rugby ball for the first time.
Ten months later, they serve as captains of the first Chelmsford High School boys’ rugby team.
The Lions, who compete as one of 11 schools in Division 2, are 0-1-1 so far. They opened their season on April 2 with a 20-20 tie against Blue Hills, where they erased a 15-0 halftime deficit, then followed up with a 41-5 loss to Cambridge.
“They showed themselves that they can do it,” coach Jeff Parks said. “Our guys will never quit. They just refuse to give up. Even when they were down by a few scores, they just never stop moving and encouraging each other and picking each other up.”
Here are five things to know about Chelmsford boys’ rugby.
After attending the two-week clinic Parks hosted last summer, Casaletto, Harrison, and O’Neill were hooked. The now-seniors, along with Harrison’s brother, sophomore Luke, emailed Parks, the principal of Chelmsford’s Parker Middle School, to ask what they could do to make sure they had a place to play in the spring.
“We were like, ‘We want to make this happen at our school,’ ” Casaletto said. “ ‘We want to have a team.’ We wanted to make it happen as fast as we could, so we could see it happen [as seniors.]”
The group stayed in constant contact, working with athletic director Dan Hart and presenting in front of the Chelmsford School Committee. Suddenly, their dream was a reality.
“We had so much fun,” O’Neill said. “We’re seniors, so we didn’t want to miss out on having it happen.”
Coaching from experience
Parks knows what he’s talking about when it comes to rugby. The 1991 Chelmsford High graduate was introduced to the sport at Bridgewater State College, where he captained the men’s club team, then competed with local men’s teams after graduation. He compiled eight years of coaching experience with the Bentley and Harvard club programs.
In February, Parks was offered the chance to make history at his alma mater by coaching its first rugby team.
“We put our faith in Dr. Parks,” Casaletto said. “I give him all the credit for turning a bunch of ragtag kids into a real rugby team in a matter of two weeks.”
With two weeks between the first practice and the first game, the clock was ticking when it came to teaching 23 boys the fitness and fundamentals involved in playing rugby. The team is athletic — Casaletto played football, baseball, and basketball, and Harrison played hockey — but rugby is a different game. Harrison explained the strategy of attacking players as an example — “you have to hit with your shoulder, and wrap up with your arms.” O’Neill said while football is stop-and-go, a rugby game offers no pauses.
“Everything we’ve learned from other sports, we had to throw off to the side,” Harrison said. “It was a huge learning curve for everyone who was just showing up, but we did good with learning the sport.”
Harrison said the team does take one lesson from their experience in other sports — competitiveness. And while there is a lot left to learn for the Lions, Casaletto said he was impressed with how far the team had come, and was proud of the season-opening tie with Blue Hills.
“I had some anxiety about how these kids would learn the game entirely in two weeks,” Casaletto said. “Kids on baseball and soccer teams have been playing since they were 6, and we were playing a varsity sport for the first time in two weeks. It was pretty amazing.”
Fans are supportive
While there were some nerves heading into their first game, they were abated by the Chelmsford fans, who packed the stadium to cheer on their team as it made history.
“It was a home game, so we had a huge crowd,” O’Neill said. “Everyone was all hyped up. My parents were there.”
“It was awesome walking out of the locker room and heading to the field,” Harrison added. “During kickoff, we looked over and there were so many of our friends. They didn’t even know what was going on, and they just started cheering.”
Harrison said a pillar of the Chelmsford athletics culture is supporting teams across the program, and the rugby program falls right into line.
“They’re always asking us [about] our next game,” Harrison said. “They always ask who’s doing what. The buzz is there.”
Leaving a legacy
Parks said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of rugby in Massachusetts, hoping it has a surge in interest similar to lacrosse. And slowly but surely, the sport is growing. When rugby became an MIAA sport in 2017, 14 boys teams competed. Now, 18 boys programs across two divisions will vie for the third state titles.
As seniors, it was important for Casaletto and Harrison to get Chelmsford rugby started quickly so they could experience being on the team. And now that the initial season is underway, the pair recognizes the impact that this team, regardless of its record, has already made.
“This is Chelmsford history,” Casaletto said. “This is something really special that I got to be a part of. I felt honored that I was able to be a part of this, that this was the exact timing of it.
“Nineteen-twenty-three was the year our football team was made, and in that year, those kids got to see that. Just thinking about how far back those things go, I was thinking how special the moment was.”