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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2003 > Sports
Rugby team playing
From left: Cabe Franklin ’94, Pete Jacoby ’97, Chris Nichel (U.C. Berkeley), Darren McCaffrey ’99E and Kevin McCaffrey

Nice Guys Finish First

Former Jeffs Storm the National Rugby Championships With a New Team

Amherst hadn’t quite prepared us for this.

With the California sun slowly rising over a plush green field, the seven former Jeffs at the heart of the Bay Area Baracus stared back at the Naples Hammerheads and tried to remember why we thought playing this game was a good idea. Our opponents, the number one rugby team in the nation, outweighed our team by 20 pounds per man, and they hadn’t flown across the country to discuss Pritch’s latest book review in the Times.

Technically, our season was already over. Two weeks earlier, we had lost in the Pacific Coast championship finals. Disappointing, but a solid showing for a first-year team. Ten days after that loss, we were summoned to the national championships as cannon fodder—a replacement for a disqualified team from Minnesota and the only Top 16 team within driving distance of Sacramento.

That we existed to take the call was a victory in itself. Founded in early 2001 in a horse paddock high in the Oakland hills, our young team found its feet relatively quickly, recruiting more than 50 players and a solid fan base for games at our home field a stone’s throw from the Pacific. The team was built by seven of us who had played together at Amherst in the ’90s, men who were initially looking for little more than an excuse to get together every week, tell old stories, maybe throw a ball around. That core group consisted of: Perry Pickert ’98, Chris Kaegi ’98, Darren McCaffrey ’99e, Dave Neale ’96, Art Potter ’98, Pete Jacoby ’97, and myself from the Class of ’94. (Alex DeWinter ’95 and Colin Clark ’98 also helped found the team, but moved away before the start of the league season.)

“We were old friends, most of whom hadn’t played rugby for years,” said Dave Neale, a middle school teacher in San Francisco’s public school system. “The team was intended to be a social outlet, so we could see each other regularly. Our main goal was to have a good time.” The choice of team name set the tone. In a sport full of Warriors and Savages, the Bay Area Baracus—or “BA Baracus,” after the Mr. T character on the ’80s TV show “The A-Team”—stood out as a team that didn’t take itself too seriously. The Baracus jerseys include a gold collar, a nod to the gold chains Mr. T wore on the show, and the club’s motto, Miseror Stultum, is the Latin for Mr. T’s old catchphrase, “I pity the fool.” But Amherst lore crept in as well. The team’s logo is a play on the Amherst rugby logo, itself a play on the Amherst seal, but the rays of light radiate from the San Francisco Bay Bridge, not a rugby ball or a book. And the Baracus’ pregame call of “Relentless,” the line-out calls, and most Baracus plays were born not under California skies, but at the base of Memorial Hill.

The Jeff-rich Baracus quickly found a niche in Northern California rugby. NorCal is the country’s premier region for the sport, home to U.C. Berkeley (holders of the past 12 national collegiate champion-ships) and to more rugby teams per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. “There are good teams in the area, but I thought I was done playing, because most rugby players are [jerks],” said Floris Iking, a 2000 graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and
a liquidation consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. “With the Baracus, I finally found a team of guys I’d actually want to spend time with after the game.” As Perry Pickert noted, “There is a certain poetic nature of Amherst Rugby: self-taught, small, scrappy but light-hearted and successful, that sets rugby apart from many other sports at Amherst.” That same spirit set the Baracus apart from the other teams in the Bay Area. In the birthplace of free love and the Grateful Dead, even rugby players make choices based on karma.

Fresh from years of wins at Amherst, the seven of us who founded the team were confident heading into the preseason. At a meeting at Dave Neale’s house, the team decided to attend only one preseason tournament, basing the decision not on the need to tune up as a team, but on the ability to sneak up on the competition during the season proper. “It was a little ridiculous,” said Chris Kaegi ’98, also a schoolteacher. “We hadn’t played a single game yet, and were assuming we’d win at will through nine months of rugby.”

Our debut came at a preseason tournament in Chico, a college town north of San Francisco that we would get to know well. We failed to set the league abuzz, going 1-2 in the tournament. Admittedly, our performance may have had something to do with our attire. With our newly designed gold-collared shirts on back order, we had played the tournament in the only uniforms we had enough of to outfit a whole team: Williams jerseys. After years of Amherst-Williams games, in which the losers give their jerseys to the winners, we were fully stocked.

The best thing to happen during the preseason was also the biggest: the addition of coach John Somers, a 6' 5" 280 lb. Irishman who had already coached teams to U.S. Division I and Division II national championships (we were breaking into Division III). “Kevin McCaffrey had told me about his brother’s team, but I’d seen enough startup squads come and go that I didn’t expect anything special,” says Somers today. “Somehow he got me out to a practice, and I remember thinking that these guys were real players—not out there to pound someone’s face in or settle a score, but real athletes, playing because they loved the game. That’s what you dream of as a coach. So I was there.”

Continued >>

Photo: Heather Somers


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