NEW YORK — Basketball might be the city's game, but at Xavier High School rugby is king.
The small, all-boys Catholic school in the middle of Manhattan seems an unlikely place to cultivate one of the best high school rugby programs in the country. But that’s just what’s been happening at the Jesuit school since 1976.
“In some ways it’s a niche sport, but at Xavier it has a long tradition," said Xavier rugby director Joe Sweeney. "The kids respect that tradition and every year they want to do better than the team before. That’s what makes this team get better year in and year out.”
And more than 30 students from Xavier have gone on to represent the United Sates playing rugby since 1992.
Sweeney was a member of the first national championship squad in 1985, along with Mike Tolkin, the head coach of the United States national rugby union team, Pete Seccia, a member of USA Rugby’s board of directors, and Bruce McLane, who coaches the heralded New York Athletic Club.
As good as that team was, Xavier rugby founder Tom O’Hara said this year’s team might be even better.
“They were a great team and they won the first national championship, but I think if these guys were able to go into a time machine they would beat them,” O’Hara said. “That’s because of the modern training techniques and better coaching.”
Although Xavier has won four national titles and is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, success didn’t come immediately.
“Our first year, we were awful,” said O’Hara, who founded the program as a way for football players to get off-season conditioning. “I didn’t know what I was doing in my first year as coach. I had no template to follow.”
Like many of the players before him, senior Connor Sweet never touched a rugby ball before he arrived at Xavier.
“I had no clue what rugby was, never played before,” Sweet said.
Growing up in Manhattan, Sweet played baseball and basketball, but he decided to try out for the rugby team as a freshman.
He’s never looked back.
“It was something new compared to playing basketball and sports people have played since they were kids,” Sweet said. “It’s a really great change of pace and I just fell in love with everything about the game.”
Sweet, a senior All-American, will play rugby at national powerhouse Cal next year. He’s the fifth Xavier player to play at Cal, joining current Bears Seamus Kelly, Patrick Coleman, Charles Guiraud and James Kondrat.
“If I wasn’t playing rugby, I really don’t know where I’d be going to college,” Sweet said. “Rugby drew me to some big rugby schools and Cal was on the list.
"It was kind of a dream school when I started making my list and everything just fell into place,” he added.
Xavier fields two varsity teams and nearly everybody who is interested in joining makes the teams, which practice at Pier 40 and play games on Randall's Island.
The teams play 12 to 14 games before the Rugby New York Championship at the end of May and the National Championship in Elkhart, Ind., on May 16-18.
John Strehle, a junior from Rockaway, said he also fell in love with the sport when he enrolled at Xavier. He takes pride in the sport’s tradition at the school.
“They say you don’t win because you have the ‘X’ on your chest,” Strehle said. “It’s true: you have to work hard.
"But it’s cool knowing all the kids before you have also done the same exact thing and have won national championships,” he added.
The sport, in its 7-on-7 form (teams usually have 15 players), will also be part of the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil for the first time since the 1920s.
“There’s probably close to 1,000 teams playing in almost all 50 states,” Sweeney said. “When I played and won a national championship in 1985, there may have been 100 teams.”
It seems the rest of the country is catching on to what Xavier knew a long time ago.