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Rugby

Rugby: Rocky Gorge wins national title

Team started building toward championship level with younger, local talent

By Andrew Conrad, aconrad@patuxent.com

July 18, 2012

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Rocky Gorge Rugby Club coach Chuck Moore knows the meaning of the phrase "no pain, no gain."

Having played for the club from 1990 — the year he graduated from Mt. Hebron High — until 2006, when he finally hung up his cleats, Moore had become accustomed to the aches and pains that became a routine occurrence on Sunday mornings after game days.

So Moore's transition into coaching took some time to get used to.

"At first, it was tough," he said. "But when the body doesn't hurt as much on Sunday, and you still have the satisfaction of winning, it feels pretty good."

And never did Moore, who is assisted by Mark Cyphers and Ashton Thomas, relish that feeling more than on June 3, when the sideline general watched his team win the 2012 USA Rugby Division II National Championship in Glendale, Colo.

There, Rocky Gorge defeated Pacific champion Santa Rosa, 25-17, in the semifinals and Midwest champ Wisconsin, 37-26, in the national championship game.

Toward the end of the first half against Wisconsin, Rocky Gorge trailed, 14-0.

"Thirty minutes in they were just pounding us," Moore said. "But our team is very resilient."

Rocky Gorge rallied to cut the lead to 17-12 at halftime, and then the two teams traded points early in the second half. A short run by Josh Brown — a former all-county football running back at Long Reach — that put Rocky Gorge ahead, 31-23, late in the second half essentially clinched the win.

"We're not even close to our potential yet because we're so young," said Moore, whose team outscored Wisconsin, 25-9, in the second half.

Fullback Andrew Kendall was named tournament MVP, and Bill Bush — a former team captain — retired as a player after the game at age 36.

Current team captain Matt Burns played for Salisbury alongside Kendall, Brown and numerous other Rocky Gorge players.

"(Assistant coach) Ashton Thomas made a little feeder program" from Salisbury, Burns said. "He said, 'You're pretty much going to get to play with your college buddies all over again.' "

Moore estimates that the average age of his squad is 24 or 25, while most teams at the national tournament have an average age approaching 30, and one or two players from a traditional rugby hotbed like Australia or New Zealand.

Rocky Gorge does not have any foreign players on the roster, and almost everyone is from Maryland, with about half of the team hailing from Howard County. A large contingent of the Rocky Gorge Club played rugby at a local college, although some of the players did not pick up the sport until after leaving school.

The club also hosts an annual Gorge Cup tournament every April, which invites all the local college teams to compete and has proved to be a valuable recruiting tool.

"We've recently had an influx of a lot of youth and talented athletes (soccer, wrestling, football), not necessarily rugby players at first," Moore said. "Most of them have only two or three years of men's club experience, which is different from college because the guys are bigger."

Moore said that the team gradually started building toward this, its first national championship, in about 2009, when "we got together and said, 'Let's do better. Let's get more organized.' "

The team trains twice a week at the Maryland City field near Laurel, balancing rugby with the full-time work schedules of all of its players, and plays all of its home games at the field near the East Columbia Library.

That is also the home field of the Howard County Hurricanes youth rugby club, which competes in the Potomac Rugby Union. The Ellicott City Express is another local club sponsored by Howard County Recreation and Parks.

"The sport itself is growing, which is great. In 2016 it will be in the Summer Olympics," Burns said. "And with these kind of (youth) programs the quality of play is only going to get better."

Last year, Rocky Gorge advanced to the Eastern regional 16-team championships for the first time in club history.

Moore added that the team's success would not be possible without the support of the Old Boy Network, a group of former Rocky Gorge players who now act as a booster organization for the club.

"The Old Boys raised $15,000 in about a three-week period," Moore said. "Without them, some of our players couldn't have gone (to Colorado)."