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Lost in the busy streets of New York City is one of the best-kept secrets in high school sports: Xavier High School rugby. Among the rugby community, the 33-year-old program has established a tradition of winning and toughness.
Ranked in the preseason as the No. 2 high school team nationally by High School Rugger magazine, Xavier has lived up to expectations. Led by senior Seamus Kelly, the Knights have trumped their first four opponents by a combined score of 201-30, including wins over preseason No. 7 Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.) 34-20, and No. 8 Greenwich (New York) 48-10.
"We deserved the ranking," Xavier head coach Mike Tolkin said. "I thought we should have been in contention for No. 1."
Kelly and his teammates have chips on their shoulders stemming from last year's collapse against Penn High School (Mishawaka, Ind.) in the first round of the national championships in which the Knights blew a 14-0 lead in the first half to lose a 21-21 tiebreaker in penalty kicks, 4-3.
"Every game we think about the loss at nationals," said Kelly, who will play rugby at Cal-Berkeley. "We are always going out there to prove ourselves. We fell asleep. We should have beaten them by 40."
Unlike most programs, Xavier always expects to win the Northeast Rugby Union regional championship. Since Tolkin became head coach in 1987, the team has won the Northeast title 14 times, including the past eight seasons.
"The pressure gets real big during the Northeast Championships," Kelly said. "To be the senior class that loses that would just be unbearable. The pressure is big time, and to lose a league game would be embarrassing."
"They are one of the best programs in the nation," Greenwich head coach Steve Lapham said, whose team has finished second in the Northeast the past four years. "They are consistently at the top. ... We have a lot of respect for that team."
Tolkin's relaxed demeanor on the sidelines, as well as his clear and precise teaching during practice, has been vital to the program. He has compiled a 281-68-3 record to go along with his three national championships, two as the head coach and one as a senior captain in 1985. Only two other high schools -- Highland (Salt Lake City) and Jesuit (Carmichael, Cal.) -- can claim a national championship. The other national champions have been club teams.
"He is the best coach I have ever played for," said senior Mike Juszczak, who also plays on the USA U-19 rugby and Xavier football teams. "He means everything to this team. ... Without him we would be nothing. We truly are one of the best-coached teams in the country."
"Spend five minutes with him in practice and you would see the passion that he has for the game," added senior Greg Voigt.
Tolkin is still making history at the Jesuit school. More than 110 students tried out for rugby this year, and he added an unprecedented fourth side at Xavier, Varsity II, to go along with freshman, junior varsity and Varsity I.
Despite weekly afternoon football practices, the 2009 seniors arrived for their rugby preseason weightlifting sessions Tuesday and Thursday mornings -- something that didn't happen last year.
"Everybody has the greatest commitment to working out that I've ever seen," Kelly said. "Last year, there were only one or two seniors who worked out in the mornings. This year, almost everyone has tried to make the effort to stay in shape and keep lifting. It's hard to do with [football] practice every day, but it's worth it in the end."
The hard work cannot come as a surprise. The team embodies a blue-collar persona both in and out of games. In games, the players make the extra tackle, run the extra yard, and aren't afraid to get their maroon and blue jerseys dirty. But it's at practice where their blue-collar roots take shape.
Each day, the team travels about 20 minutes for practice at Pier 40. The Knights don't have a home field, so when they arrive they can be greeted by as many as nine other teams practicing on the very limited space of approximately two soccer fields. It's a situation most of their competitors do not contend with.
"These guys recognize how they have to work to be able to play," associate head coach Joe Sweeney said. "Not having a home field, not having a practice field they can walk to, having to scrap. ... This makes their appreciation of being able to play so much more."
"We're a team that embraces adversity. We don't fear it," said Juszczak.
After a three-game road trip to California that included a 22-20 victory against defending national champion Jesuit High, Xavier remains undefeated. On May 2, Xavier will compete for its ninth straight Northeast title. If victorious, the Knights will return to the national championships, where they can avenge last season's loss and cement themselves as one of Xavier's greatest teams of all time.
"This year's team is one that has something to prove," said Juszczak. "Our goal is to win a national championship; anything less isn't acceptable. "