Benefield: Elsie Allen rugby squad eyes national stage

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.

But what this group does seem to have, year after year, is an extraordinary cross sectionof personality and background, Petty said.

“Everybody throws around the word diversity,” Petty said. “This is the most unique group of people you will ever meet in your life. One guy is heading to Harvard, another guy is living in a group home. We have every level of intellect, we have everything.”

On that list of everything the club has, put success at the top.

In various configurations of playoffs under USA Rugby, the Lobos have won one national championship, one state championship and 10 league titles in 20 seasons.

They've been in the mix any number of other years. And in May, they have been invited to compete in the boys high school national championship in Kansas City, Missouri.

“We want to go to nationals just to kind of prove what we have,” said fullback David Klaut, a senior at Elsie Allen. “We always work as hard as we can and this time are we are actually getting a chance to show what we've got.”

That is the good news.

The bad news is the cost estimate for sending 26 players and four coaches is $30,000.

That total includes an ongoing scholarship program for players.

They've got a GoFundMe page and they are hosting fundraisers, but they have reached only 30 percent of their total.

Petty is just thankful that the format has changed in recent years. Instead of a playoff structure where winners advanced according to game-by-game results, leaving them precious little time to scrap together cash, the newish format of selecting teams based on rankings and performance - although subjective - gives teams and supporters months instead of weeks to raise funds.

“Now we have two and a half months to raise the money so it's more doable,” Petty said. “If we had to do it in two weeks, it would be, ‘No thank you.'”

Klaut said a chance to compete on a national stage is worth every cookout fundraiser and appeal.

“It's kind of the reality of our hard work,” he said of the trip to Kansas City. “We've always put all of what we have into it. This is the first time, in my case, that we have been recognized for it.”

This season marks the third time Petty has applied to be part of the national tournament and the first time the Lobos have been accepted.

“It's a dream come true,” said scrum-half Elias Bergstrom, a junior at Santa Rosa High. Bergstrom's father played for one of the early Lobos rugby teams.

“I love the camaraderie,” he said. “It's a brotherhood.”

Rugby demands it, according to Klaut.

“I've played football and other sports and it's just not the same,” he said. “We just play for each other. We do everything we do, just for each other. In this game, it's really tough so you have to trust (your teammates).”

The Lobos don't mind being different; they don't mind being tough - they just want a chance to play their game on a grander stage.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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