High school rugby set to kick off in December at Torrey Pines

For the second consecutive year, Torrey Pines High School will offer varsity and junior varsity rugby as the club program embeds on campus as part of the sports’ hoped-for eventual move to a CIF sanctioned sport.

This year’s Varsity squad is expected to compete for the San Diego County title against strong teams from St. Augustine, Cathedral Catholic and La Costa Canyon. The Falcons will again play in the Southern California Youth Rugby (“SCYR”) High School “Red” Division, for veteran, experienced programs where 100 percent of the students attend the same school, and where the program is under the auspices of the school’s athletic department. Students from teams in the Red Division must complete school and district athletic packets, comply with school eligibility guidelines, and must follow CIF protocol on all athletic matters.

The 2014-15 high school season (roughly December — February) surprised many club rugby programs in Southern California by eclipsing the club season (March — June) in popularity for the first time. Schools that had 20-30 boys on JV, and over 30-40 players on Varsity, had trouble fielding teams when the related club season started.

“It is no surprise that high school rugby has exploded in San Diego,” says Torrey Pines Varsity Head Coach, Matty Sandoval. “Players are students first and they love playing with their school name on their jersey, alongside their classmates.”

Among other signs of progress at the local high school level, the Torrey Pines Varsity team has graduated from practices at a local elementary school, to practices on campus in Ed Burke stadium this season. With 25 players on this year’s JV and 36 on the Varsity roster, Rugby already ranks among the most popular sports on campus, based on the number (61) of participants.

Another peek at the future of rugby, at least in San Diego County, might be the sheer number of teams fielding a squad in the SCYR “Blue” Division for new, start-up programs. The list of seven new schools in 2015-2016 includes traditional football powerhouses Helix, Pt. Loma, Valhalla and Carlsbad, and some up-and-comers like San Marcos and Westview.

Altogether, 23 high schools in the County will offer Varsity Rugby (seven each in the Red, White (multi-school), and Blue Divisions, and two embryonic programs in the Green Division.

Torrey Pines’ expectations for the season are supported by the size and experience of returning players. Seniors Cole Maes-Valley (6’ 1”, 240 lb’s) and Benny Ruffolo (6’, 215 lb’s), both selected to the prestigious Southern California Griffins Rugby All-Star Team, will help lead the front pack. Senior scrum half Aiden “Sunshine “ Mabrito and fullback, Max Lyle, will steady the back row, but several juniors will push hard for playing time: Nick Zimmer, at hooker, played in Canada last summer as part of a High School All-American U17 touring squad; Heady flanker Jackson Baehr and hard-hitting Tanner Watkins will likely join the front pack, while last year’s JV MVP, scrum half Bryce Pickwell will find a home somewhere on the back line. Wing Chris Vilchis continues a long Torrey Pines tradition of fleet, hard-charging outside players. Experienced sophomores Matthew Goena and Beau Morgans are also expected to be in the back-line mix.

“This team is very bright and very coachable,” said Sandoval, a former All-American hooker from University of San Diego, who has coached the Torrey Pines Varsity for the past six seasons. “We’ll be throwing a lot at them and expecting a lot from them, and I have all the confidence they’ll rise to the task.”

After scrimmages against University City on Dec. 5, and Mission Vista on Thursday, Dec. 10 at Torrey