Jeff Gard/Today’s Northumberland
By winning their second straight Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) championship, the St. Mary Thunder have accomplished a rare feat at the boys’ rugby A/AA level.
St. Mary, the defending champion from Cobourg, were ranked No. 1 heading into this year’s provincial tournament held Thursday through Saturday in the Durham region and won four straight games to once again capture the OFSAA title.
They defeated No. 2 seed Eastdale CVI from Oshawa 40-0 in Saturday’s championship game. The Thunder opened the tournament with a 42-7 win over No. 16 seed Thomas A. Blakelock from Oakville before defeating No. 9 Eden High School from St. Catharines 36-0 in the quarterfinals and No. 5 Ashbury College from Ottawa 34-10 in the semifinals.
“To go back-to-back, only two other teams have ever done that,” noted Thunder coach Greg Conway. “It was awesome and really they dominated the entire tournament.”
The other two teams to win two straight OFSAA boys’ A/AA rugby championshipswere Stouffville District Secondary School in 2007-2008 and Trenton High School in 2009-2010.
Joining those teams, the Thunder have had a dominant run the past two seasons with an overall record of 32-3. Eighteen players returned from last year’s team.
“We had 10 of the 15 starters from last year so we had a lot of experience to build on,” Conway said.
St. Mary never trailed during the OFSAA tournament and Conway said the team has a “triple threat” of size, speed and a strong ability to spread the ball that factors into the winning combination.
“We were one of the biggest teams across the board. Even our backs were big kids,” he remarked. “They also had speed so we had a lot of big kids who could also run fast and hard. We moved the ball from one sideline to the other at will and attacked from all across the field as opposed to a one-dimensional team that attacks right in the middle of the field with their big forwards and then tries to spin it to their backs,”Conway continued.
“We spin it everywhere all the time so that’s really, really difficult for a high school rugby team’s defence. It takes a lot of organization and commitment and communication to be able to defend us. If we keep the ball, we’re very difficult to beat. We struggle in a game if we take a lot of penalties or commit a lot of handling errors where we’re giving the ball away for free.”
Conway is in his 20th season of coaching at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School and recalls the early years of the program compared to where it is today. Rob Majdell was the coach and Ray Heffernan, who still remains a coach, was also involved and the program had been established about five years prior.
“We were struggling to get guys to play,” Conway said, noting there were a lot of hockey players in the school who were focused on that sport. “We had a great group of kids, they just weren’t very good rugby players; not a lot of experience and the (Saxons) club didn’t have junior rugby at the time.”
Conway said the Thunder teams would compete well during the regular season before coming up against powerhouses, like Adam Scott Collegiate from Peterborough, in the playoffs.
One way to attract new players began in 2004 when the Thunder team began taking rugby tours, which was a chance to play against teams from other countries and gain educational experiences at the same time. They went to Bermuda first and other trips have since included places like Hawaii, the United Kingdom and New York City.
“Every two years we would do a trip,” Conway said. “That started pulling new players in who thought ‘I can go to these cool places if I play on the rugby team.’ That also made us more successful on the rugby field so that pulled more people in and more athletes we wouldn’t normally get.
“By 2010 we were very competitive and have been ever since,” Conway added.
Next year’s team will be younger, but Conway believes there’s potential to form a competitive team again and perhaps make another trip to the OFSAA tournament.
“The Grade 10s moving up to senior are very good so they’ll help and we’ll have good returning players as well,” he said, noting a chance at a three-peat would take a lot of commitment. “This group of kids we had were super-committed, super-hungry to learn. They kept each other honest and in check to be at practice and know what’s going on.”
Commitment is a key element of the Thunder rugby program.
“Our message is if you commit to something and you give it your all and try your best to learn and get better, not just be there, then that will happen with our program,” Conway said. “We have very knowledgeable coaches who’ve got a lot to teach and if kids are willing to learn it then they can own it. That’s what has happened.
“We’ve had kids that we’ve taught the system, they’ve bought into the system and taken ownership of it and it has given them a lot of flexibility to do whatever they want with it. We give them a framework to work with and they take that framework and learn how to attack using it so that we don’t have to constantly be giving instructions from the sideline. We barely have to speak to them during a game. That’s kind of our philosophy; show up so you can understand what we’re doing and then the sky’s the limit.”
St. Mary team members at the OFSAA championship were: Brendyn Beck, Wyatt Brown, Dylan Bryans, Ryan Campbell, Brent Clemmer, John Corkery, Luke Eriksson, Tucker Firth, Noah Flesch, Dalen Hayward, Zaine Hunt, Isaac Kelly, Joseph Komar, Josh Littlechild, Jarrett MacDonald, Adam McNee, Curtis Mullin, Lewis Odurny, Ben Quemby, Caleb Quemby, Jared Quemby, Cam Rae-White, Koby Read, Tristan Shaw, Ethan Shore, Carson Shuttleworth, Connor Vivian, Colton Winters, Tyler Woodland, Jake Sinclair and Connor McGovern.
The coaching staff included Greg Conway, Ray Heffernan, Tim Linehan, Drew Quemby and Shawn Carmichael.