Bill Mahon had no knowledge of rugby when his son, Sean, started playing the sport at a local club six years ago while a freshman at Fenwick High School.
Now he is the coach of a Fenwick team that is fast becoming one of the strongest high school programs in Illinois and just returned from a trip to Ireland.
Fenwick has only had a rugby program since 2012, when Mahon and his son, then a senior, helped get it started.
“I saw how wonderful his experience with rugby was,” Mahon said. “I felt like I really wanted to give him the opportunity to play at his high school and open up opportunity for other kids.
“We approached the athletic director at Fenwick, Scott Thies, to see if he would be interested in supporting a club and he was.”
High school rugby is still in its infancy in Illinois, where the sport is governed by the Illinois Youth Rugby Association. About 30 teams compete in three divisions – Tier I, Tier II and Tier III.
Most clubs draw players from several high schools, but that isn’t the case among local Catholic schools, where interest seems strongest. Fenwick has joined fellow Chicago Catholic League members Brother Rice, Mount Carmel, St. Ignatius and St. Rita in the newly formed Chicago Catholic Rugby Conference.
The league features an eight-game schedule, with each team playing the other league teams twice.
In early league results for Fenwick, Brother Rice defeated the Friars 27-10 in their Chicago Catholic Rugby Conference opener and Mount Carmel also rallied for a 45-36 win over Fenwick. The Friars notched their first CCRC win with a convincing 65-0 decision over St. Rita on Friday as nine players scored in a balanced attack, The Friars consolidated that result with another solid win over St. Ignatius on April 15 to move to 2-2 in the CCRC,
“We all got together this year and decided it would be interesting to form a conference in the hope that it would resonate with our student bodies and serve as an impetus for other Catholic schools to start clubs,” Mahon said.
Fenwick’s program is one of the largest, with 55 players spread over three levels. Roughly half are first-time players.
“The biggest challenge on a year-to-year basis is to teach boys to play the game,” Mahon said. “At this point it is rare for us to have anyone that has played rugby before. We have one freshman who had played it in middle school.”
But the 21 players who went on a nine-day tour of Ireland over Spring Break got an eye-opening education. The Friars played exhibition matches against teams from Dublin, Galway and Limerick, losing all three, and also received instruction at three professionally run clinics in addition to doing plenty of sightseeing.
The trip, which was organized by the club’s general manager, Don McDermott, was invaluable.
“I think they really enjoyed it and learned a great deal,” Mahon said. “We got beat up but we learned a lot about rugby and hopefully we can leverage that.”
The Friars are hoping to return to Ireland in two years.
“Our goal is to try to grow the sport of rugby in the United States and the Chicago area,” Mahon said. “So one way we decided to do that was to go on tour. In rugby it’s fairly common for teams to go overseas and tour.”
The Friars have already enjoyed an impressive measure of domestic success. They finished third in the state in 2012 and took second in Tier II in 2013, going undefeated until losing to Brother Rice 27-10 in the state championship game.
Fenwick has since moved up to Tier I and is 0-2 at the varsity level. The JV team is 2-0 and the frosh/soph squad 1-1.
Many of the players have played football or soccer at Fenwick, while Robert Hogan is playing both baseball and rugby this spring.
The roster includes two grandsons of Fenwick legend and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner – senior Ryan Smith and sophomore Will Lattner. Smith is in his third year with the team and has a football scholarship to Miami of Ohio. Seniors Danny Shannon and Mike Hanrahan and junior Jack Elliott are among the other top players. Other key Friars with odd-sounding positions (to most Oak Parkers, at least) include senior fullback Mike Kelly, junior prop Andy McGann, senior lock/jumper Jimmy Lawley, wing player Aidan Maloney, Patrick Fitzgerald and Jim Wise, who played his first game at hooker in Ireland, succeeding in operating line-outs and taking charge in the scrums.
The 2014 season began in mid-February with pre-season training. The two-month regular season extends into mid-May, followed by the state playoffs, which culminate with the state title game on Memorial Day.
Fenwick’s varsity and junior varsity teams play their home games at Elmhurst College, while the frosh/soph squad hosts games at Serpico Field.
More information, including a summary of rugby rules, can be found at the Fenwick website. Click Athletics then click Rugby under the Spring Sports heading.