By Richard Dunn     2/8/2016

Change is not always comfortable or easy, but JSerra Catholic High School administrators were open to establishing a rugby team. Now several students are benefiting from the new club.

“It’s exciting,” JSerra coach Louis Mosconi says. “I’ve got a ragtag team of former tennis players, volleyball players, water polo players and football players, and one guy who has never played competitive sports before.”

With student athletes crossing over from several sports, the Lions’ first sevens rugby team competes in the Los Angeles High School Sevens Rugby Green Division, which is part of the Southern California Youth Rugby League. JSerra is aligned in the division with Crespi, Artesia and Camarillo. The four schools played a series of four tournaments on Saturdays in January, but the Green Division is considered a developmental league, so there are no playoffs or championship.

Sevens rugby is played with seven players on each side with seven-minute halves, as opposed to traditional rugby with 15 players on the field, in which each team has eight attackers, five defenders and two in the midfield with 40-minute halves. But sevens rugby has been gaining momentum throughout club, NCAA and international competition.

“Sevens rugby is a super-fast and a wide-open, full-field version of rugby,” Mosconi says. “Sevens rugby was added to the Olympics for this season and is exploding in popularity with colleges recruiting players for their rugby sevens programs.”

While JSerra is known as a sports powerhouse, few athletes have been available to transfer their skills. “The challenge for us is competing against other sports (for participants),” Mosconi says.

But since the program overcame a host of obstacles to field a team, it is now thriving and the players are experiencing the type of camaraderie and sportsmanship characteristic of more conventional team sports like football, baseball and basketball.

“I think the highlights [have been] all the firsts that the boys have had – the first try [score], first loss, first win, [and] first injury,” Mosconi says. “For me personally it was sharing something that I love and then stepping back and watching these young men forge new relationships and become brothers.”

Of JSerra’s 10 players, only junior Sam Keighley, sophomore Jojo Sime and freshman Tiaan Mosconi, the coach’s son, have any experience playing rugby.

For juniors Manny Aguirre, Matt Feldmann, Dan Blackburn, Eli Ortiz, Derek Reyes and Riley Kuo, and sophomore Ben Beythoun, it is their first time playing the sport.

For Kuo, also a tennis player, he was the unfortunate addressee of the “first injury” reference as he suffered a season-ending broken collarbone in the Lions’ second tournament of the season.

But Coach Mosconi is seeing solid growth when it comes to experiencing a new sport, learning to battle with your teammates and understanding teamwork.

“The most exciting aspect of this project for me is watching how these guys pulled together and stuck with it. They studied and learned a totally new sport and are so focused on improving,” Mosconi says. “They are not your typical mainstream athletes; they’re making the transition to a very physical sport and they have done it exceedingly well. They have come together as a team and have each others’ backs on and off the field. These guys are humble, super intelligent and have great character and sportsmanship, which is what really makes me so proud to be the coach.”

In its first tournament Jan. 9, JSerra defeated Camarillo, and lost to Artesia and Crespi. The Lions also finished 1-2 in the second tournament Jan. 16, beating Camarillo again. In the third tournament, JSerra knocked off Camarillo and tied Crespi, 5-5, going 1-1-1. Yet the wins and losses are not as important as learning teamwork and physical discipline. Besides, the program almost didn’t get off the ground.

The club started after the Irvine Rhinos Rugby Training Academy pitched the JSerra administration about starting a rugby club at the school, making it only the second high school in South Orange County (following Dana Hills) with such a club. But it was not easy securing a sufficient amount of JSerra students to participate. SCYR rules stipulate that a high school must have at least 50 percent of its players attend that high school, so JSerra needed eight for a varsity rugby team and eight for a junior varsity. One week before the Lions’ first scheduled match in December, however, they had only five JSerra students signed up.

“It was then that the SCYR pulled the plug on us and ruled that we were ineligible,” Mosconi says. “But when that door closed, another opened. SCYR also has a high school sevens rugby division.”

And the rest is history.