At every turn Thursday, things seemed to go from rough to worse at Elsie Allen High School.
The rugby team, being put through their paces by veteran coach Alan Petty, were made to sprint, jump and sprint some more. Then there were situps and wrestling matches. There was lots of groaning.
At some point, certain position players were directed to a machine that looked downright medieval, like something meant to roll asphalt flat rather than train young men in athletic pursuits.
“The scrum machine” required a tangle of bodies to bend low and push forward in unison — against weight, against tension, against the brake and against the small log Petty had shoved in the grass at the base of the massive metal wheel.
For the first handful of tries, the machine didn’t budge. Eyes bulged, bodies collapsed and tongues let loose the odd curse word, but the thing stayed rooted right where it was.
Deep into the drill, one epic push put the sadistic machine past its brake, over the hunk of wood and sent eight burly athletes sprawling onto the wet grass.
Cue Petty’s whistle.
“OK, that was maximum brake. That was pretty good,” he said, sending the athletes off to their next form of torture.
Welcome to Elsie Allen rugby. It ain’t for the faint of heart.
“We look for a person who is physically fearless,” Petty said. “You don’t have to be big, but you have to be really tough.”
Want tough? Did I mention that it was raining — hard — throughout practice Thursday? Or that Petty brings in conditioning guru Mick Harrison at least twice a week to make the poor Lobos gasp for air?
“It’s about banging 1 percent harder than you did yesterday,” Harrison exhorted as he darted between Lobos trying to squeeze in as many crunches as possible between sprints.
The method, and the madness, is working.
The Lobos ripped through a stacked preseason schedule and are currently undefeated in the Redwood Empire Conference, which includes teams from Berkeley and Napa, among others.
The Lobos are coming off their only loss of the season, a non-league defeat at the hands of Peninsula Green of Woodside, the No. 17-ranked club team in the nation, according to the Goff Rugby Report,which tracks the sport in the U.S.
On Saturday, the Lobos, currently the No. 41-ranked high school club team in the nation, will test themselves on the road against Jesuit High of Sacramento, the top-ranked single-school team in the nation.
“We always expect to win,” Petty said. “At one point in history, Jesuit had 10 losses in a decade and six of them were to us.”
Not a CIF-sanctioned sport, rugby is officially a club, meaning students from various high schools compete under the Elsie Allen banner. Of the 38 rostered athletes, 12 are from Elsie. The next most-represented school is Maria Carrillo, with nine players. Montgomery, Piner, Santa Rosa, Analy and Napa are also represented, among others.
It also means there is not the same kind of institutional support that, say, the football team gets. Athletes have to raise funds for gear and travel expenses and they won’t win a varsity letter at the end of the season.