It’s that time of year again, hundreds of youth rugby players lacing up their boots and hitting the pitch to kick off the rugby...
It’s that time of year again, hundreds of youth rugby players lacing up their boots and hitting the pitch to kick off the rugby season. Come join us in celebrating the sport we love so much. This Saturday and Sunday at Cordova High School.
The Kick Off Tournament (KOT), in it’s 33rd year is the largest Youth & High School Rugby Tournament in the Western Hemisphere offers your club, your squad, as well as its coaches and supporting parents, a unique opportunity for pre-season development.
What started from humble beginnings, as an opportunity to get pre-season playing time for lots of young high school rugby squads, has blossomed into the largest Youth and High School Rugby Tournament in the United States (and likely the entire Western Hemisphere!).
The Kick Off Tournament, affectionately called the KOT, is still run today by some of the pioneers who first took this on in 1984, when 7 high school clubs were featured. Jerry Ahlin, Ray Thompson, Pete Deterding, Bob Lutrell, Joe Cavallero, Zack Finney, and a posse of their finest friends, come together in a massive volunteer effort to pull off quite a show, each and every year. They do so for the love of the game, and for the kids who love to play!
Many of the finest players, coaches and clubs in rugby in America have been featured over the years, including Jesuit High, many times over National Champions. Other top local clubs to have begun their season at the KOT, and gone on to compete that Spring at the National Championships include Cougars (Del Campo), Islanders (Burbank), Vacaville, Christian Brothers, and most recently Dixon, Granite Bay and Sierra Foothills.
By 2005, the event had grown to 30 clubs, playing on three fields at Granite Park. The popularity of youth and high school rugby was beginning to explode at that time, not simply locally, but across the Bay Area and indeed America. In fact, a recent report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (according to the Maryland-based organization’s U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report) reveals participation in tackle football fell 21 percent from 2008-2013, while rugby experienced the biggest gain of all youth and high schools sports, growing a whopping 81% during that time!
The KOT, a large and well established structure on the game’s competitive calendar, was uniquely positioned to help foster this growth. 2006 saw the addition of Girls play, while 2007 saw the event expand to two days and include a free Middle School clinic. For the past three years, now at Cordova High, 7 to 9 fields have seen play all day, both Saturday and Sunday, featuring an average of 130 sides playing a staggering 205 30-minute matches!
Clubs have visited the KOT in the recent past, seeking some warm California sun, and the chance to compete with locals, the likes of the Jesuit Marauders…, clubs from across the Bay Area (Santa Rosa to Morgan Hill), but also from as far away as Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Washington, SoCal, and even several from Alberta, Canada.
Referees visit from even further, with several coming each year from Canada, but also Pittsburg, New York, Massachusetts, Idaho, Hanover (Germany) and Durban (South Africa)! In order for the KOT to grow, and to continue to provide quality matches, the word went out across USA Rugby, “Send us your refs!” Four brave souls answered the call in 2006, and more and more refs have come every year since.
As the KOT grew, however, the need to help produce and develop a local crop of refs came with the territory. So the KOT leveraged our wealth of sunshine and matches needing officials, to offer a unique Referee Development Program. The KOT RDP features a free day of referee training Friday at Sac State, and two full days of valuable referee coaching throughout the event. Our own Raley’s College Greens (as coordinated through Ref Mom extraordinaire Thais Armenta) donates all the food for the ref tent!
As richly rewarding as hosting young stars of the game can be (many ruggers who’ve played at past KOTs have gone on to play for, and even Captain, our USA National teams), there’s no greater joy than watching U-8s and U-10s blossom into feisty U-12s and eventually become skillful, competitive Middle Schoolers!
Its at these Junior levels that the popularity of rugby has finally taken off. Today, top high school rugby players have often learned to compete over 6 or 8 seasons, and in some cases, played under the same coach, or program, the entire time. The quality at the top keeps growing finer each and every year.
So why rugby?
To some rugby is a muscular ballet with mud and blood, while to others it just looks like a brawl. A violent contact sport with no padding? In this day and age of heightened concerns over sports concussions? But to those who take the time to peel back the veneer and take a closer look, they see adults mentoring children; coaches who carefully teach players to respect themselves, their opponents and the game itself.
With top notch coaching, confidence and skills grow over time. Fitness reigns supreme. The head and neck must never be a part of the rugby tackle. Speed and power, choreographed teamwork, brilliant ball handling and precision kicking are often on display. But look closer still and you’ll notice there are no timeouts. The coach, who runs practice, has little to no input once the match has started. The coach elects a Captain, who is the only conduit to the Ref. The Ref, in turn, tries to manage a fair contest between two sides through the Captains.
Rugby is certainly an interesting contradiction. Though the players seem to be trying to tear each other’s head off, they help each other up off the ground, and cheer each other (and meet to shake hands) after every match. And players will alway refer to the referee as “Sir”. While the ref is just trying to keep heads from being torn off, a good ref can bring a competitive match up to a boil, while never allowing it spill over. All players contribute, all get to handle the ball, and all shapes and sizes of players are welcome. Passion created from this game is measurable.
Why Sacramento Rugby?
Students of sports history know the oldest sport offered at Cal (UC Berkeley) is rugby, which started playing in the 1880s. Other local rivals, St. Mary’s, Santa Clara and Stanford, all share long, rich rugby traditions as well, with St. Mary’s having just won their first National Championship (in ANY sport), May 2014, at Stanford (featuring many local ruggers), and repeated in 2015!
As the first World War concluded, the Olympics embraced rugby, offering a Gold Medal (won by the USA) in both 1920 and ’24. Graduates of these Universities combined, with rugby players from San Francisco’s Olympic Club, to train, as they traveled by ship, and win these medals. Captaining the ’24 team was Colby “Babe” Slater from nearby Woodland. But after the Gold Medal match in Paris, where unruly French fans nearly rioted as USA beat France, rugby was dropped from the Olympic program.
The tradition of rugby lingered across Northern California. Though college and then pro football took over, 1953 saw a small rebirth of rugby when the first Monterey Rugby Classic was held. Clubs and tournaments popped up everywhere throughout the 1960s (UC Davis and Sac State have both recently celebrated their 50th year of rugby). In 1982, a sturdy group of Sacramento sportsmen travelled to Europe on a rugby tour. They went as players, only to return with a newfound desire to teach the game they grew to love. So a new high school rugby competition began in Sacramento, kicking off with our first ever KOT!
Most years, weather permitting, Sacramento offers a long winter/spring playing season, as local clubs draw upon a wealth of coaches, referees and administrators to help develop young players and squads to enjoy the game, the same game played in Olympics of old. The size and depth of the local competition here remains unrivalled across American rugby’s landscape. It is no coincidence that as soon as Sacramento built a top notch soccer facility, USA Rugby scheduled an International match here.
As USA beat Canada in front of a sold out crowd, 8,000 made it out to Bonney Field, June, 2014, the blazing Sacramento sunshine proved a valuable advantage. When USA played the mighty New Zealand All Blacks at sold out Soldier Field in Chicago, November 1st, three Jesuit grads suited up for USA (Lou Stanfill, Eric Fry & Blaine Sculley) while another three players came from Bay Area high school programs.
A doubleheader then came back to Bonney Field last July (during the State Fair) as we witnessed USA beat Japan, and Fiji tie Samoa. And as PRO Rugby announced its inaugural season (this coming April-June), Sacramento was awarded its first of 6 teams!
An abbreviated brand of the game of rugby called “Sevens” has traditionally been played locally, though only in the summers. Sevens is now introduced to the Olympics, with the first Gold Medals, Men’s and Women’s, on offer in 2016 in Rio de Janiero. With USA Women presently ranked 5th, and the Men ranked 9th (and rising!) on the World Sevens circuit, we can certainly expect to see Americans, and hopefully some Sacramentans, competing in the Medal rounds in Rio!
U-14 (two levels)
U-17 (two levels)
U-19 (six levels)
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