The Baracus' gentle disposition gives the lie to the bumper sticker that
says “Rugby players eat their dead.”
- Nice Guys Finish First
- Winter Sports in Brief
Nice Guys Finish First
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January 7, 2002: We played our first league game in Aptos, a small town
on the Pacific coast 40 miles south of San Francisco. After a hard-fought match
with several lead changes, we scored a try in
the last minute to tie the score. (Scoring in rugby is roughly the same as
in American football: five points for a “try,” akin to a touchdown;
two points for a successful kick through the uprights following a try, and
three points for kicking through the uprights after a penalty, equivalent to
kicking a field goal in football.) Not wanting to start the year on an indecisive
note, the referee declared, “No ties; next try wins.” The other
team was the first to score, and the Baracus’ history began with a tough
Again, the effect of wearing Williams jerseys cannot be underestimated. Playing
in our new jerseys the following week, we won by a score of 66-0. Our record
stood at 1-1 when we embarked on the road to Reno, Nevada, to play the incumbent
Division Champion. After two games in relatively mild temperatures, a cold
front pushing through Reno led to true January weather for the game. The field
was frozen solid, and snow blew across the field for most of the match. The
Baracus who were California natives seemed baffled
by the idea of playing in snow, as did the Reno players. Most of the Amherst
grads, however, were energized by it, snow in January being a nice reminder
of glory days past. When the sun finally broke through, we had beaten the incumbent
division champion 18-14.
We held on to first place for the next two weeks, and at the midpoint of the
season we were 5-1. The top two of our league’s seven teams would advance
to the league playoffs, but with another team also at 5-1 and Reno at 4-2,
a postseason spot was still uncertain.
Less questionable was the fact that a successful rugby team had formed around
the concept of character over skill. “I
remember looking up at the halfway point and thinking, ‘Oh my God, we
did it,’” said co-captain Darren McCaffrey.
I loved that we were winning, don’t get me wrong. But to have come that
far with a team of guys who loved playing together . . . I honestly think we
could have lost three or four more games and still had just as much fun.”
We started the second half of our season the same way we had the first—with
a heartbreaking loss to Aptos in the last minute of play. But another comeback
victory over Reno put us back on track, and by going 5-0 the rest of the season,
we completed our journey from nonexistent to first. We were on our way to the
playoffs as the 2002 division champions.
Pete Jacoby ’97 was one of the few
men on the team with playoff experience, having played with a strong San Jose
side between his time with the Lord Jeffs and the Baracus. “The playoffs
really put us on the map,” he says now. “Only the other teams in
your division care about the regular season. In the
playoffs, the national league starts to pay attention and think about who they’ll
promote for the next season. From a certain point of view, a poor showing in
the playoffs is worse than not going at all.”
Cabe Franklin '94
calls for the ball
April 13, 2002: We began our playoff run in Chico against
the northern division’s
second place finisher, the Solano Savages, beating them 27-7. Two weeks later,
we returned to Chico to face the Old Pueblo Lions, the 2002 Arizona state champions,
whose Website boasts that they “recruit from several local Army bases.” Scoring
against this defense-minded team was like approaching the speed of light: as
a player got closer to the goal line, the amount
of mass he had to move seemed to grow exponentially. Even so, we won 16-10,
and cracked the top 16 teams in the country.
Despite the sweetness of the win, there wasn’t much in the way of celebration.
The Chico men had handily beaten the Oregon state champion, and the loser of
the next day’s Pacific Coast championship match would join Arizona and
Oregon on the sidelines, while the winner continued on to the national championship
tournament. We hunkered down for our second quiet Saturday in Chico that month.
Thus the locals were treated to the unusual sight of two dozen strapping young
men spending a night in a college town trolling for . . . earplugs, so we could
get a full night’s sleep.
Chico had not trailed an opponent all year, and the next day brought no miracles.
While we were at one point as close as 18-16 (after being down 18-3), the final
result was Chico 30, Baracus 16. A trip to the Pacific Coast finals in our
first year was nothing to sneeze at, and the main issue most of us had with
the loss was that the quality time we’d been spending together for the
past eight months had abruptly come to an end. It seemed it
was all over but the T-shirt sales.
Which is why we were so glad to be taking the field against the Naples Hammerheads
on May 6, extending our debut season in the national playoffs against the number
one team in the country. We were in Sacramento to play hard but safe, just
glad to be considered a relevant stand-in on the national level.
Naples had its own concept of our relevance, and scored two minutes after the
opening whistle blew. After 20 minutes, the score was 23-0, more than doubling
the largest deficit we had ever come back from. We stanched the tide with our
first score at the 24-minute mark, and the first half ended 35-12. The halftime
pep talk was typical Baracus: chatter about how good it was to play together
modicum of ball-handling advice, and
an enjoinder to have fun above all else.
The second half was all Baracus: tries, penalties, defense, drop goals. When
the final whistle blew, we had completely shut out the number one seed for
40 minutes while scoring 37 more points ourselves, sending Naples to a 49-35
earning ourselves a spot in the national Final Four.
Taking out the one seed would remain the pinnacle of our season. We were unable
to solve our neighbor to the north, Chico, who beat us 39-24 and then went
on to win the national title.
The Baracus’ inaugural year was noteworthy not just because of our win-loss
record, but because we created a rugby team nobody thought could exist—one
that recruited based not on skills or aggression, but on not being a jerk.
That commonality of character led to 50 new friendships for most of the players
on the team—not a bad take for a few months, especially for men several
years out of college, whose glory days of friend-making were supposed to be
behind them. When we weren’t practicing or playing, we were throwing
parties together, going to each other’s shows, visiting each other’s
hospital beds and trying to work through day-to-day life while making those
long drives to Aptos, Reno, Sacramento and Chico. The year saw two new fathers,
three engagements and several career paths changed so players could follow
their passions off the field as well as on. Of the seven Jeffs players, I left
a technology marketing career to pursue writing; Art Potter ’98 finished
his first year of law school; Pete Jacoby
97 got married to Jen Wallace ’97; Dave Neale ’96 reupped his commitment
to teaching; Perry Pickert ’98 took leave from his technology job to
film a documentary in Cuba; Chris Kaegi ’98 left his job in venture capital
to teach school through Teach for America and Darren McCaffrey ’99e is
still a school teacher in Oakland and all-around wonderful guy.
In late 2002, the team received notice it was eligible for promotion from Division
III to Division II and accepted. As a result, the 2003 season will bring more
games, stronger opponents and longer drives to face teams as far away as San
Luis Obispo, California—akin to an Amherst team
having an away game in Montreal. With so much change looming, it’s anyone’s
guess as to whether the team can match its first-year heights, but team leaders
I think we’ll do well,” said Perry Pickert. “This is the
best place in the country for rugby, and there are hundreds of great players
we haven’t met yet. Out of those, there have to be 20 or 30 more we could
have a good time playing with. That personality fit is key. If we’re
going to have the kind of year we had last year, nothing is more important.”
Winter Sports in Brief >>
Photos: Heather Somers