Cover photo courtesy of Christopher Greene
Unbeaten WNY rugby squads Canisius High School and Kenmore Rugby Club met on Sunday at Sparky Adams Field in Tonawanda for a showdown of two playoff bound teams with league bragging rights and postseason seeding on the line.
Two-time defending league champion Canisius (5-0) entered Sunday on top of the RugbyNY Upstate Boys High School table with 24 competition points while boasting a plus/minus of 140 so far this season, 63 points better than current second place Kenmore (4-0, 20 points).
The RugbyNY Upstate Boys league currently includes seven clubs. Canisius and Kenmore are joined in the conference by Corning High Schools Boys Rugby, McQuaid Jesuit Knights, Syracuse Silverbacks, Fairport Boys, and Grand Island Vikings.
The Canisius/Kenmore rivalry has grown to be one of the top spring rivalry games amongst WNY high school sports featuring two of the oldest high school boy’s rugby 15s clubs in upstate New York.
On Sunday, a defensive battle for territory for most of the first half preceded a flurry of scoring just before halftime.
With less than twenty minutes to halftime, Canisius hooker Austin Connors completed a successful lineout following a Kenmore penalty near the Kenmore try zone. Connors ended up with the ball after a number of offensive phases and took it into the try zone to open the scoring in the match. Brendan Carroll added two points on the conversion kick for the 7-0 Crusaders lead.
A penalty kick by Carroll shortly after the opening try, and then a try scored by flanker Aidan Mecca before the half gave Canisius a 15-0 lead after forty minutes.
In the second half, Kenmore gained some momentum following an over 50 meter run and score by wing James McNeil Jr., a junior at Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School, to put points on the board in favor of the home team.
Canisius responded with another try by scrum half Marco Sindoni to retake a fifteen-point lead approaching mid-way through the second half, now 20-5 in favor of the Crusaders.
McNeil and Kenmore responded with another try by #13 while fly half Avery Vogt tacked on two critical points on the following conversion kick.
On the ensuing kickoff, McNeil took the ball out of the air and returned it to the house for another 50+ meter run and his third try of the game, completely shifting the momentum in favor of Kenmore. Vogt added two more points to cut the deficit to 20-19 late in the match.
“I wasn’t even meant to be in the middle,” said McNeil after his third score of the match. “After watching film, I saw they liked to kick middle, so I moved there and hoped they kicked it. The previous score had Canisius a little bit worried, and had us feeling a little bit more relieved, but I knew if I could score one more time, it would bring a different level of energy to the team.”
With less than ten minutes to play, Canisius found itself only meters away from the Kenmore try line before committing a costly penalty, where a try might have put the match score out of reach.
After retaking possession of the ball, McNeil led the Kenmore offense down the field for what would be the final phase of the game.
Eventually, McNeil found the try zone for his fourth score of the game, barreling through the Canisius line to give Kenmore a 24-20 lead with no time remaining. Vogt added the conversion on the final act of the game to make the full-time score Kenmore 26, Canisius 20.
“At halftime we had a talk…just being honest, they were running through us,” said McNeil on making adjustments for the second half. “I said ‘we’ve got to get low, toughen up, and hit hard.’ It was a hard-hitting game…I’m just glad we pulled it out.”
Kenmore West sophomore Shaw Freeman was recognized as Man of the Match by his Kenmore teammates and coaches.
McNeil, who is a multi-talented athlete, says football is currently his main focus as he intends to play collegiately.
However, while at Canisius High School, McNeil says he was approached by current Crusaders head rugby coach Charlie Ehlers who encouraged McNeil to come out and try rugby.
In his first season on the pitch, McNeil was part of the league champion Canisius team while also making it onto the field for significant playing time.
After enrolling at Bishop Timon-St. Jude, McNeil would have to find a new club to play spring rugby with, so Kenmore was a natural choice given location and knowing someone on the team already in Javier Torres, a St. Joe’s student who recently signed on to play for the D1A college men’s powerhouse St. Bonaventure University Bonnies.
“I love playing rugby, and it was a chance for me to play, so I just made the best of it…I’m happy they accepted me in,” said McNeil on his move to the Kenmore club. “For playoffs, I’m looking forward to good competition. Every week our team chemistry has gotten better and that comes with more time and practice. I’m happy to work with that with my team and keep competing against better competition.”
Both Kenmore and Canisius will participate in the RugbyNY boy’s championship ‘final four’ in Albany in June.
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