For the first time in program history, Saint Ignatius Rugby competed in the National Rugby Tournament in Kansas City, Mo. The Wildcats quickly turned around from winning the OHSAA State Championship earlier in June against Archbishop Moeller to prepare for a shot at the National Title. The quarterfinals opened up on June 17 at Swope Soccer Village as the Cats opened up play against Greenwich (CT).
The National Tournament typically takes place in mid-may; however, the games were pushed to mid-June this season. During mid-May, student-athletes at Saint Ignatius would be focused on AP testing, Finals and end-of-the-school-year festivities, preventing them from competing at the National level. Head Rugby Coach Dan Arbeznik ’00 and his team made the trip to Kansas City for the 2021 National High School Rugby Tournament with the schedule change.
While the Wildcats prepared for worthy adversaries with a week and a half of practice since the State Championship, another obstacle presented itself heading into National Tournament weekend. Temperatures in the high 90s and even in the triple digits would swelter the student-athletes on the pitch.
“All of the credit goes to several areas of the program, preparing the kids for the weather, we had terrific parental support, making sure we were fed,” says Arbeznik. “Mo Sizemore [Head Athletic Trainer] was amazing, along with AJ Short [Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach] doing the postgame yoga and pool recovery.”
Arbeznik’s crew knew they had to focus on recovery as soon as a match ended with the temperatures reaching the triple digits. “It was tough, but the whole coaching staff did a great job of preparing us,” explains junior Marty Lenehan. “We were always doing something, whether it was ice baths or yoga, that was huge.”
“It was exhausting,” junior Tim Putka says. “We had water breaks because of how hot it was, we had cold rags everywhere, it was an exhausting weekend, but it was fun at the same time.”
The Wildcats opened National play on June 17 at 6:30 p.m. against Greenwich in the quarterfinals. The Blue and Gold would trail 7-0 through the first 30 minutes of the match. Junior Patrick Clink would breakthrough for the Wildcats’ first and only try and with a Robert Voth conversion, the Cats would tie the match at 7. Voth would hit the game-winning penalty kick around the 55th-minute mark and the Wildcats defeated Greenwich 10-7 to advance to the National Semifinals.
“Bitter disappointment because we wanted to get the proper rest, and it was our second group who went on and saved the day for us,” explains Arbeznik. “We were fatigued and nervous going into day two to face Gonzaga, but a win is a win.”
The Rugby Cats would rematch Gonzaga (DC) in the National Semifinal. The Wildcats faced them ending the regular season against on May 22 in a 38-26 win. Both Jesuit schools would compete for the right to play for a National Title. Gonzaga jumped out early, claiming a 13-0 lead as the Wildcats would start slow in the scorching Kansas City air. “We have had a problem coming out slow all year,” says Lenehan. “We all looked at each other and said we’re not going to let this happen; we became more physical and took over the game.”
The Wildcats would begin their comeback against their Jesuit counterparts. Trailing by one near the 54th-minute mark of the match sparked the turnaround the Cats were looking for in the semifinal. A 40-meter maul showed the true grit of the Blue and Gold as they would force their way into the try zone and take the lead and not look back. “We got the ball at the halfway point and got into a maul,” explains Tim Putka. “The maul didn’t stop and we finally punched it in.”
The Wildcats scored 26 unanswered points in the 26-13 victory over Gonzaga to advance to the National Championship. “They have the uncanny ability to dig deep,” Arbeznik says. “Our guys rallied off the mat and group two did a great job with their fresh legs and those guys turned the game around.”
After the victory against Gonzaga, the Wildcats were just one win away from a National Title. “That was the most serious I have ever seen the team before,” sophomore Ryan Putka mentions. “There was no joking around, the bus ride down, not a single word was said, everyone was locked in.”
At the National Tournament, the student-athletes for the Wildcats demonstrated their true resiliency, able to play three games in three days in wicked temperature conditions. After each win, there was a quick turnaround and the need to expedite the recovery process. “For the kids, it stays the same, ice baths and pool sessions getting them ready for the next game,” Arbeznik explains. “The coaching staff had late nights making game-plans and spelling out to the kids what to expect each game.”
“We would ice for three to five minutes and then run down to the pool in the hotel and do workouts there,” says Lenehan. “Rarely ever was there a time we were just in our rooms; we were always up to something.”
The Wildcats squared up against Herriman (UT) in the 2021 National Championship with one game to go. Like the previous two games, the Cats began slow and trailed early to Herriman 7-0. Lenehan would get on the board with a try and a Voth conversion knotted the score up at seven. Herriman would retake the lead on a penalty kick. Lenehan answered the call yet again to give the Wildcats a 14-10 lead near the 50th-minute mark.
Herriman forced their way in for the game-winning try, and the Wildcats fell short, losing 21-17 in the National Championship. “The message is still being formed; of course, the immediate feeling is being disappointed, we felt we had the match and we could have won the match,” says Arbeznik. “However, I know looking at the history of the club; they’ll look back and understand what a terrific year it was for the kids and the school.”
Coach Arbeznik is looking forward for the Wildcats, as he is getting ready for the 2022 season. “I was talking with our Developmental coach Tony Vegh ’73 and he reflected me after the developmental season ended and my comment back to him was if we stop to look back, you’ll lose track of which way you’re going,” says Arbeznik. “I’m fixated on the next steps; maybe after a long summer off, I’ll have a chance to reflect a little more on this season.”
In 2022 there will be many returners for the Wildcats; as the 2021 season concludes, the student-athletes were asked to describe this team in one word.
“Brotherhood,” says Lenehan. “That’s the most important part of our team, coming out everyday and playing with our friends.”
“Fighters,” says Tim Putka. “We were never the biggest team, but we had heart and we showed that this season.
“Great, “says Ryan Putka. “No one was expecting us to go on a run, to go to the National Championship; even though we didn’t win, we still did it.”
Saint Ignatius hosted the National Youth Rugby 7s Championships in June and has given the school National attention. Also, international attention with over 4,000 people tuning in on the SIBN stream, reaching 20 different countries. Schools around the country have contacted the Wildcats to come and play in Cleveland potentially.
“We have great things coming up, especially after hosting that Youth Tournament and competing at the high school national tournament; we’ve been contacted by a good number of schools around the country,” explains Arbeznik. “In 2022, we’re hoping to go back and tour Normandy and Paris and give the kids a great experience.”
The Rugby Cats end the 2021 season with a Midwest Championship and claim their sixth State Championship in program history. The Cats finish as National Runner-ups. Certainly, the coaching staff and student-athletes are hungry to take the pitch for the 2022 season.