By Tim Pickwell
Just days after defending their Southern California U19 Boys Rugby title in Fullerton, the Carmel Valley-based San Diego Mustangs travelled to the Moose Rugby Grounds in Indiana, May 16-18, to participate in the Boys High School National Invitational Championship.
The Mustangs went 2-1 in the tournament to finish the season with an overall 12-1 record. San Diego allowed the fewest points (20 in three matches) of any of the 24 teams in the national championship field. Unfortunately, their only loss was 17-15 to the Danville (CA) Oaks in the first round. The loss dropped the Mustangs to the consolation bracket of the single elimination tournament, where they proceeded to defeat Northern California power Marin, 29-0, and the Blues from Kansas City (ranked No. 3 in the nation by Rugby Magazine), 15-3.
“Except for the first 10 minutes against Danville [when the Oaks went up, 10-0],” we dominated our opponents,” said Coach Matty Sandoval. “I’m really proud of the fellas. We went up against clubs that have been around for 30 years or more, and who are regular invitees to national tournaments. We showed that the selection committee didn’t make a mistake picking us, and that the Mustangs program belongs amongst the national elite.”
In true rugby tradition, after beating each other silly for 60 minutes, the opposing squads gather at midfield after each match for handshakes and an exchange of compliments. Each team nominates two opposing players (forwards and backs) from the other squad as a “Man of the Match,” recognizing their opponents’ strong play in the game.
Senior Drew Gaffney was inspired for all three games throughout the weekend, and opponents named him a “Man of the Match” at forward in all three Mustang contests. The Cal-bound No. 8 (rugby positions are designated with a number) used speed, toughness, quick-thinking and a loud voice to drive his teammates through the pain and exhaustion of three nearly full-length matches in three days. His singing and jokes also kept the team loose on several lengthy bus and plane rides.
“Gaffney has been the heart and soul of this team all year, but he really was big in this tournament,” said Sandoval. “He plays with so much passion, and when you combine that with his skill and athleticism, he’s more than most teams can handle. He put us on his shoulders and carried us whenever we hit a rough patch. He’s equally valuable as a leader off the pitch. A rare kid who will be hugely missed.”
Fellow senior forwards Joey Kuperman (football scholarship to Cal Poly), Grant McGahey (USD), Alec Barton (heading for St. Mary’s to play in the Gael’s Top 5 Rugby Program)Michael Bannock, and Johnathan Raby (San Diego State) also played well all weekend, while graduating back-line players Michael Cahill, Vic Gausepohl and Alex Lindsay also turned in strong performances. Cahill ignited the Mustangs’ initial comeback against Danville, while Gausepohl’s try with 5 minutes left brought San Diego to within two of the Oaks, 17-15. Alex Lindsay had a lengthy, late run from the wing position against Marin, and played solid defense until sidelined by a knee injury. Billy Maggs, who will join Gaffney at perennial college rugby powerhouse, Cal, played in the first match, before retiring from the tournament after aggravating a previous shoulder injury from the recent All American 7’s tour to England. Inside Center Chase Pickwell was named a ‘Man of the Match’ by opponent Danville in the first game, and scored a try early in the second match against Marin before likewise retiring with a recurring shoulder injury. The Mustang back-line has been a piece-meal affair for two months, rarely starting the same 7 players, and had to re-load and recalibrate for each match in Indiana—replacing half its starters from one game to the next, and during matches as men went down.