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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2003 > Sports
Sports.
Rugby team
The Baracus' gentle disposition gives the lie to the bumper sticker that says “Rugby players eat their dead.”

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 loss.

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 were what 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
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 again, a 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 defeat and 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 are optimistic.

“ 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.”

Next: Winter Sports in Brief >>

Photos: Heather Somers

 
 

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