Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Four years ago a group of freshmen took a chance on becoming the first incoming class of the upstart Wando rugby team.
There was no guarantee of success, no rugby experience between them, just a group of players eager to learn and a volunteer coach excited to lead his Warriors into battle. The lumps came early, but eventually the players got better. As the years passed, the youth matured and Wando earned its respect.
Last week, the Warriors closed an undefeated 2014 regular season with a road win over three-time defending state champion Chapin. Wando sits atop Rugby South Carolina's standings and is ranked No. 21 in the nation by Rugbymag.com heading into the playoffs. Of Wando's 15 starters, 13 are seniors, 10 from the inaugural season four years ago.
“When we started, we didn't know the rules. We didn't even know how to hold the ball,” Wando head coach Tod Shepherd said. “We were teaching from the ground up. But the kids stuck with it. They lived it, they learned it and now they're dominating.”
The Warriors lead the state in point differential by more than 40 points. They're led by seniors Ryan Springer and Davis Strobel. Springer is a scrum-half who facilitates throughout his team like a point guard on the basketball court. Strobel is a hooker who's most dangerous in a breakdown when teams are fighting for possession.
“Springer is the best high school passer I've seen,” Shepherd said. “Strobel knows what it takes to win the battle of the breakdown and that's what you have do to win in rugby.”
Austin Clark and Sean Keirnan are both shutdown defenders who bolster the Warriors' backline that's turned in four shutouts this season. Wingers Jon Cummins and Nick Hamlin both have dangerous speed and are consistent scoring threats. Riggs Law and Daniel Runck are the Warriors' second-row enforcers. Runck is 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, while Law goes 6-foot-3, 215 pounds.
“This is the most well rounded we've ever been,” Shepherd said. “We have the full package. We can be a defensive team, put up the numbers, play in the trenches or we can play the speed game outside. I don't think we really have a weakness.”
Shepherd says his players have all the intangibles of champions. The team is a tight-knit group that practices year-round, even by themselves out of season. When January's ice storms forced all high school teams to cancel practice, the Wando rugby players took it upon themselves to hold a players-only practice.”
“They get pumped just to come to practice,” Shepherd said. “They're motivated. They want to prove that they deserve to be considered one of the best teams.”
Wando opened the season with a 55-point blowout of Columbia, but it wasn't until a five-point road win against perennial power Greenville a month later that Shepherd says the team knew how special this season could be. Wando didn't allow Columbia inside its 22-meter-line the entire match and held 70 percent possession against Greenville. But Shepherd says Friday's win over Chapin was the biggest in the program's history.
The win was Wando's first against Chapin, and secured home field advantage for the Warriors when they face Chapin again in the opening round of the playoffs Friday at Cario Middle. If the Warriors can get past Chapin twice in two weeks, they'll advance to the championship round the following week at Furman University in Greenville.
“We're focused like we've never been,” Shepherd said. “Every one of these kids knows what's on the line. They've worked so hard. Their goal is to win state. They're focused on that. Anything less would be unfulfilling right now.”
Frankie Mansfield, the sports reporter for the Moultrie News can be seen all around the state following teams to meets, games, and matches. For score updates, breaking sports news, and more follow @fjmansfield on Twitter and like Moultrie News Sports on Facebook.