Rugby club finds its footing

SYCAMORE – Nate Petit has always been a big rugby fan. “When I was little, I used to go to the high school matches all the time,” the Sycamore eighth grader said.

His father, Tom Petit, the head coach of the Sycamore Middle School rugby team, said Nate “fell in love” with the sport watching the 2006 Sycamore High School team coached and founded by Rick Turner.

“That team made it for us and it caught on,” he said.

The high school team, which won back-to-back state championships in 2010 and 2011, inspired Tom Petit to form a club team at the middle school.

“I was made aware of the IYRA (Illinois Youth Rugby Association) Middle School Division four years ago,” Tom Petit said. “Since Nate was entering sixth grade and because we were having so much success at the high school level, I decided to ask the school district for permission to start a team. They were all for it.”

The Spartans finished the 2013 regular season with a 5-0 record. Their 60-5 win against a Wapin Youth and Elgin River Rats combined team on May 18 earned them first seed in the IYRA state championship, which was held Sunday, June 2. Unfortunately, the team lost to Naperville in the semifinals.

The game was tied at 5 at the end of regulation, so each team was given five kicks at the goal. Sycamore converted one of its five, while Naperville converted two for the win. Naperville eventually lost to Arlington Heights in the championship game.

“It was the greatest way to lose,” Tom Petit said. “But we never should have been in that position. We were flat and I know half the team would admit that wasn’t their best game.”

SMS Principal Jim Cleven said the club has been a “huge success” among students. Home games and practices are held at the middle school field.

After some heavy recruiting, Tom Petit and his son were able to form a team for the 2011 season. The team consisted of 20 sixth graders, two eighth graders and a seventh grader, few of whom had any experience in the sport.

“It’s a sport I didn’t really know anything about,” Henry Fair said.

“I had heard of it, but had never seen it,” Adam Brown added.

“A lot of my friends played,” Cain Hillman said. “I saw one game and I liked it.”

For Nick Skokowski, whose older brother Phil had been on the high school team, it was a natural step. “I felt it looked pretty fun,” he said.

Unfortunately, the sport didn’t exactly like the young Spartans – at least not at first.

“We got killed at first,” Will Weber said.

“Everyone was bigger than us,” Nate Petit explained.

Besides their inexperience, Tom Petit said his team was composed mainly of sixth graders, who didn’t stand much of a chance against kids two years older and physically more mature.

Eventually, the Sycamore team caught up. This year, 18 of the 26 players are in their third season. “Which is why we’re so good this year,” Tom Petit said.

“We got better from playing more,” Nate Petit said. “And we had a growth spurt.”

Brown said the teenagers also learned that rugby is a team-oriented sport that drew them all together. Adam Tipps said he would choose playing rugby over playing football. Boston Bonds, who is in his first season, said rugby is more demanding than football.

“It is a great experience for our students to compete at the state level and see success,” Cleven said.

Tom Petit said the SMS program has been very successful. “It’s everything I thought it would be,” he said. “The school district has been very open to our project. They have held us to our original promises, which include being a self-funding club and only playing District 427 players.  We do not receive any outside financial help.  The district has, however, been gracious enough to bus the high school team to away games.”

Tom Petit said the reason for the team’s success is twofold. “We always seem to get decent athletes and the coaching staff is a phenomenal group of committed volunteers,” he said.

Since he’s losing so many kids to graduation, the coach’s next big challenge is recruiting new players for next season. Tom Petit said he may also recruit a fifth-grade team.

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