The Eastside Lions varsity rugby team rose to the occasion at 2018 National High School rugby tournament in Kansas City, Missouri, this past May.
The Lions, who passed up the state tournament in order to compete at nationals, earned a third-place finish at the formidable tournament featuring a bevy of top-flight high school programs.
Lions varsity head coach Ray Keane said nationals was an invite-only tournament.
“We actually decided to forego the state finals. We played all the way up in the playoffs. The state finals was on the same weekend we were going to Kansas City. We decided to go to Kansas City. The standard (national tournament) is much better and the kids were going to learn more from it. That is what we did it. We finished in a very credible third place. We will be invited back next year for that season,” Keane said of his team’s stellar showing.
Keane said the Lions rugby club offers teams spanning a variety of age levels. The varsity team typically has 11th- and 12th-graders on the squad. The junior varsity team is predominantly ninth- and 10th-graders. The developmental squad is usually composed of seventh- and eighth-graders. For the players between first and sixth grade, the Lions try to keep players on the same team for a minimum of two years to create continuity.
“We have a different structure but we make sure they stay in the same group for pretty much two years,” Keane said of the younger age levels.
Across all levels there is one constant, a hyper-focus on developing skills across the board.
“We have a system here at Eastside which is professionally based. It is all about teaching basic skills. One of the things you will hear is that while the USA is progressing at the national level, one of the things they are not quite as good at as mature countries in the game is with skills like catch, pass, tackle and kick. Those things don’t necessarily come as naturally to an American kid that would come naturally for a European kid. For example, because they are kicking a soccer ball from the time they are born,” Keane said of European athletes.
Keane said he focuses on developing and fine tuning skills even at the varsity level during practice sessions.
Eastside Lions President Sean Fryer said there are players in the program from all over the Western Washington region.
“Most of them are from Bellevue, Redmond and Issaquah. We also have kids from Seattle and even further south who have moved but wanted to stay with our program,” Fryer said.
Fryer was thrilled to see the varsity and junior varsity teams compete against teams from England over the summer. The Lions faced a team from Newcastle, England and Midland, England.
“Just to be able to have our kids test themselves against traditionally playing rugby nations is a great thing for them. What I think we find each time we play them is that our level of play goes up and our ability to compete and learn the little nuances of the game that they have makes a huge difference for our teams,” Fryer said.
Keane enjoys hosting the European teams for friendly contests against his squads.
“Teams from overseas tend to come this time of year. It is a great system. They come into town and stay in our houses so the boys get to know them. That is a great thing about this sport. It is a culture of respect and inclusion. We are all family,” Keane explained.
While the Lions currently practice on the Eastside at Ringdall Fields in Newcastle, they are currently searching for a longtime home for a rugby facility.
“A big part of rugby’s culture is having a place to call home. You don’t see much of it in the US (United States) with the exception of the colleges. That is what we’re trying to do,” Keane said.