Summit Renegades boys rugby makes historic trip to state 15s post-season on May 5 | SummitDaily.com

Summit Renegades boys rugby makes historic trip to state 15s post-season on May 5

About four months ago, the Summit Renegades boys club rugby team started fine-tuning its secret weapon: fitness.

Three times per week — Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, from January to March — the second-year squad would meet with head coach Peter Clarke and his assistants for the kind of training some kids might describe as torture. The boys started with tons of running, from stairs and wind sprints to 40-yard dashes, and between sprints, they'd do body-weight exercises to boost leg and upper-body strength. The club team didn't have access to gym facilities like high school teams, and so they got creative with pushups and pull-ups and fireman's carries, all in the name of bulletproof cardio for the rugby pitch.

"It's not a long-distance event," head coach Peter Clarke said of the game, which has long been popular in Summit thanks to a girls team that's undefeated in nine straight state championships. "They need to be practicing at 20 yards, 40 yards, with multiple sprints (and) small breaks between. That gives them the engine they need to move around the field a full 60 minutes."

The pain paid off. Tomorrow afternoon (May 5), Clarke and the Renegades head to Mossbrucker Park in Littleton to face Dakota Ridge, ranked No. 1 in the Division II South, for the quarterfinal round of the Colorado state 15s rugby post-season.

"I think they've grown a lot through this season," Clarke said. "Every time we set a new challenge, they respond. It's a good journey they're on and we're taking small steps, each game at a time."

Friday's game marks the first time the Summit team has reached the playoffs, and that's a major milestone for this fledgling club. After finishing their inaugural season winless — the first-year Renegades often ended on the wrong side of 35-0 blowouts — the boys returned for a second season with fire in their bellies. They ended the regular season ranked No. 4 in the Division II North with a 4-2 record, despite playing with a barebones crew of 18 that's one sickness or injury away from being shorthanded. They've come leaps and bounds from their first season, Clarke said, and he believes it all started with those early-season torture sessions in the heart of winter.

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"Going from never seeing a rugby pitch to having a year of experience under their belts, that made a huge difference," Clarke said. "They also had the fitness, and that is something they had to physically commit to. We had some guys drop out because they didn't want to deal with that."

Gridiron lessons

For the 18 guys who stuck around, this season has been one for the record books. The Renegades got its first-ever program win during inter-league scrimmage in March, and then continued winning when league play came to Breckenridge, going undefeated this season at Kingdom Park: 28-0 against Cherry Creek on March 4, 21-0 against the Grand Junction Griffs on April 1 and 59-5 against Broomfield on April 8.

"The highlight for the whole team were those first scrimmages when we got our confidence," said Alfonzo Vazquez, a 16-year-old forward. "We knew the pace of the game, we knew how it played out, what to do in what position — it was good. People were down about it at the beginning, but after those first games, we got the confidence. We knew everyone would be there if we needed it."

Like most of his teammates, Vazquez had never played rugby before last season. He was no stranger to bruising and battering — he plays running back for the Summit High football team — but the unrelenting pace of rugby took him by surprise at first.

"In football, you have a down and you're expected to make a play, and make a good one," Vazquez said. "In rugby, the clock doesn't stop and you have as much time as you want to make a play, but it still has to be quick. You have to think about things quicker — there aren't set plays."

That's where the Renegades' fitness comes into play. Clarke knew his boys would face bigger, stronger, more experienced opponents, and so he wanted to use Breck's 9,600-foot elevation to his advantage.

"Like American football, it's a very physical, confrontational game, and you have to dominate those things," Clarke said. "You can still dominate the opposition, even though you might be smaller, and if you're fit you can get off the ground faster to make another tackle. It's a much more continuous game."

Family ties

Last season, the team was caught off-guard by the nonstop pace of 15s rugby, but they were also caught off-guard by sheer inexperience. It takes time to understand the rhythms and movements of rugby, Clarke said, and the Renegades often play teams with years of experiences, like undefeated Northside (No. 1 in the Division II North), and 5-1 Dakota Ridge.

To bridge the gap, Clarke and his assistants set small, manageable goals throughout the season: get the program's first win, get better at lineouts, get better at tackling, get invited to the post-season.

"Coach told us, 'As soon as we win this first game, let's make it to playoffs,'" remembered Jaime Urias, a 17-year-old who's now in his second season on the pitch. "And we did. Our coaches try to set a goal for us at every practice and it seems like we've been able to meet those goals every time."

Urias grew up watching his older sister, Abby, play with the Summit girls team, and so he fought for a boys team as soon as he entered high school. After two seasons with the crew, he says one of their biggest strengths is communication — and a sense of family.

"I feel like we got closer as a team last year, started calling each other 'family' instead of a team," Urias said. "We all had each other's backs. We also started listening to each other more, and when you have a close bond like that, you want to come back. That's what made me want to come back this year."

The Renegades face a tough matchup against Dakota Ridge. It would be sweet to win, Urias and Vazquez agree, but they both know this season is bigger than a single game.

"I feel like we're all nervous for the game, but we're ready for it to happen," Vazquez said. "It's been a long season of practicing and improving, and we're ready. We're hoping for the best."

For coach, his team's first trip to the 15s post-season is yet another step on the road to building a state-level boys rugby program.

"From my perspective, we go down there as a team and perform the best that we can," Clarke said. "If we can put the processes in place that we need, everything will take care of itself. We go down there with our heads held high, saying, 'This is the best we can do,' and if that's not enough, then we keep working."

Summit Renegades vs. Dakota Ridge

What: The quarterfinal round of the Colorado boys club rugby post-season and the Summit Renegades’ first-ever trip to the playoffs

When: Friday, May 5 at 6 p.m.

Where: Mossbrucker Park, 12776 W. Cross Avenue in Littleton

Cost: Free for spectators

For more info on the Summit Renegades boys club rugby team and the Colorado Rugby post-season, see the league website at RugbyColorado.com.