AP NEWS

RUGBY Cardinals eye 12th straight state title

March 21, 2019

Depth, talent, experience, a winning pedigree — the Greenwich High school rugby team seems to have it all.

And by season’s end, the Cardinals hope to possess something else: the state championship trophy.

Greenwich ended its 2018 season with a hard-fought 33-27 win over Staples in the Division I state championship game, a triumph that gave the squad its 11th consecutive title.

The Cardinals, who opened their 2019 campaign with a resounding 52-10 win against St. Anthony, have all the characteristics in place to remain the team to beat in the state and a roster full of players of determined to accomplish the squad’s mission.

“The depth we have this year is unmatched out of every other year I’ve been doing this,” said GHS coach Joe Kelly, whose varsity roster includes more than 80 players. “Including our JV team, we have 150 kids signed up to play rugby. We love the increase in the program we had from last year to this year. The enthusiasm for the sport is great.”

Winning another state title capped a season in which the Cardinals posted a record of 13-5 and also qualified for the High School Rugby National Championships. Greenwich suffered three tough defeats at the national tournament last spring and is aiming to make its mark at this year’s event, which will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah from May 15-19. This marks the seventh straight season the Cardinals have been invited to compete in the national tourney.

“Of course, we want to win the state championship, but we also have our eyes on nationals this year,” Kelly said. “We can do it this year, we have the depth. If our players push themselves to high levels of fitness, high levels of depth and high levels of strength and committment, we can go far at nationals this year.”

Captaining the Cards are seniors Lorenzo Villani, Paul Koullas, Andrew Nanai and Larry DeLuca and junior Emilio Camou, all of whom made a significant impact on last season’s squad.

“Our team is great, we all get along, we all have a good time and most of us have been playing since freshman year,” Koullas said. “Those who haven’t have picked up the sport pretty quickly.”

Koullas plays the hooker position, which entails throwing the ball in on the lineouts and hook the ball back in during the scrums.

During its one-sided season-opening victory against St. Anthony’s, the Cardinals exhibited plenty of positive signs.

“Not including the first 20 minutes, our first game was amazing,” Koullas said. “Luckily, we got together and we were good after that tough start. We have some things to work on and we have to continue to stay focused.”

Villani, who plays the scrumhalf position, is one of the Cardinals’ main offensive threats.

“Last year we had a good season and we are excited for the season coming up,” said Villani, whose brother Sebastiano, a 2018 GHS graduate, was one of the stars of the squad a year ago. “Our forwards are looking good. They have a lot of technique and we have a lot of good athletes in back with a lot of potential.”

DeLuca, who played at the linebacker position on Greenwich’s 2018 state championship football team, will be relied upon to lead the team’s defensive effort.

“This is my last year playing rugby, so I want it to be the best one,” DeLuca said. “I play 13 — outside center, so my job is to play defense, make a lot of tackles, gain some yardage and score. Defense is always important — especially in rugby.”

Nanai, a standout on Greenwich’s wrestling team, is in his fourth season as one of the key players. He believes the team is in prime shape to outlast their competitive foes.

“Definitely our conditioning is something we excel at, we are a lot better than all the teams we play in terms of conditioning,” Nanai said. “It helps when it comes down to the 80th minute and we are still driving and the other teams are breaking down.”

Said Camou, also a GHS football player: “Like any year, we want to win nationals, but we also want to do better than we did last season. We want to set the bar high for the next teams.”

AT THE HELM: Kelly is beginning his ninth season at the helm. He guided the Cardinals to eight state championships in his first eight seasons. The coaching staff includes assistants Glenn Fox, Mike Fina, Mike Laczowski, Garith Gibbs and Bill Doyle.

WHO’S GONE?: Sebastiano Villani, DJ Brown, Nick McIntosh, Bennett Tiedy, Finbar Doyle and Eddie Schmidt were some of the key members of the 2018 team that graduated.

“We had good kids last year, who we worked with for several years to get to jell,” Kelly said. “They developed into good athletes and a lot of them are playing in college now. It was physically, the biggest team we’ve ever had.”

WHO’S BACK?: Greenwich is relying on its captains — Camou, Villani, Koullas, Nanai and DeLuca — for leadership on and off the field. Juniors Evan Weigold, Francisco Liguori, Logan Guerrieri and Ian Foster should also spark the squad each game.

“In order for us to achieve our goals, we have to continue to win each day in practice,” assistant coach Fox said. “Whether it’s fitness, individual skill work or whatever we are doing, if we win the day, it will help us get to where we need to be.”

“Our overall communication and team bonding is really strong,” Camou said. “And our conditioning, which is really going to help us, is great.”

dfierro@greenwichtime.co