Last season, the Charlotte Catholic rugby team set a goal: win the state title. They accomplished it and also won the south regional tournament, earning them a spot in the national high school rugby tournament in Pittsburgh.
The Cougars failed to win a game, though, and finished eighth.
This season, they set a new goal: win at least one game at the national tournament. After dominating their competition on the way to a perfect regular season and winning all three games at the USA Rugby South High School Championship at Furman University, Charlotte Catholic won their first game of the USA Rugby Boys' High School Championship and finished the season fourth in the nation.
Last year "we didn't really know what we were getting ourselves into," said head coach Brendan Keane, who started the program six years ago when he began teaching at Catholic. "It's a totally different level from what you see in Charlotte or even in the South. We were unprepared."
"This year we were much better prepared," he said.
The Cougars, who were the sixth seed coming into the tournament, won their first game against Snow Canyon High School, the No. 2 seed, 17-12. In the second round, they lost to eventual national champion Xavier High School (N.Y.), the oldest varsity rugby program in the country.
Juniors Nick Funck and Jake Finger were selected to the USA Rugby High School All-Americans player pool.
"Winning is a really big tradition here at Catholic," said Finger, 17. "You always hear about people winning state championships or regional championships and stuff like that but it's not too often that you get to go to a national championship and not only compete but win and hang in there with the top programs in the nation."
The Cougars faced little resistance during league play in the North Carolina High School Rugby Association. The NCHSRA, which started last year, is mostly made up of teams from the Charlotte area, including Myers Park, Berry Academy, West Mecklenburg, East Mecklenburg, Providence, Concord, North Mecklenburg in addition to Catholic. Hoke County High is the only non-Charlotte-area school that competes in the NCHSRA.
Catholic went 7-0 in the regular season, outscoring opponents 276 to 51 with three shutouts, giving them the NCHSRA state championship and qualifying them for the South championships. The Cougars weren't able to compete in the state tournament because it was the same weekend as the regional finals. West Mecklenburg won the state tournament title.
Keane, 30, credited his team's success to their commitment on and off the field.
"The biggest thing is the time and effort that the kids put in to practice," he said. "The fact that they take it as seriously as they do. And they listen. They listen to what they're supposed to be doing, and they want to achieve at that next level."
Funck, 18, said the coaches played a large part in the team's run to nationals.
"We've got the best coaches," he said. "Coach Keane is a young coach, so he can still run around with us."
Funck also said some parents and other coaches from the Charlotte Rugby Club help out during the season.
"They know every little detail about rugby," said Funck.
Keane, who played rugby at Appalachian State and for 10 years with the Charlotte Rugby Club before retiring last year, said the South Charlotte U15 Rugby Club is also a big part of the team's success. Many of his players also played for the club team so they come in with background on the sport. Funck started playing rugby in eighth grade for the U15, and Finger started playing when he was in sixth grade.
With just one senior leaving this year, Keane expects to bring an experienced team back next year. They haven't set their goals for next season yet, but Keane plans to put the bar a little higher.
"I think we put ourselves in a good position to move up that ladder and come home with some trophies next year," he said.