Former Jeffs Storm the National Rugby Championships With a New Team
From left: Cabe Franklin ’94, Pete Jacoby ’97, Chris Nichel (U.C. Berkeley), Darren McCaffrey ’99E and Kevin McCaffrey
Amherst hadn’t quite prepared us for this.
With the California sun slowly rising over a plush green field, the seven former Jeffs at the heart of the Bay Area Baracus stared back at the Naples Hammerheads and tried to remember why we thought playing this game was a good idea. Our opponents, the number one rugby team in the nation, outweighed our team by 20 pounds per man, and they hadn’t flown across the country to discuss Pritch’s latest book review in the Times.
Technically, our season was already over. Two weeks earlier, we had lost in the Pacific Coast championship finals. Disappointing, but a solid showing for a first-year team. Ten days after that loss, we were summoned to the national championships as cannon fodder—a replacement for a disqualified team from Minnesota and the only Top 16 team within driving distance of Sacramento.
That we existed to take the call was a victory in itself. Founded in early 2001 in a horse paddock high in the Oakland hills, our young team found its feet relatively quickly, recruiting more than 50 players and a solid fan base for games at our home field a stone’s throw from the Pacific. The team was built by seven of us who had played together at Amherst in the ’90s, men who were initially looking for little more than an excuse to get together every week, tell old stories, maybe throw a ball around. That core group consisted of: Perry Pickert ’98, Chris Kaegi ’98, Darren McCaffrey ’99e, Dave Neale ’96, Art Potter ’98, Pete Jacoby ’97, and myself from the Class of ’94. (Alex DeWinter ’95 and Colin Clark ’98 also helped found the team, but moved away before the start of the league season.)
“We were old friends, most of whom hadn’t played rugby for years,” said Dave Neale, a middle school teacher in San Francisco’s public school system. “The team was intended to be a social outlet, so we could see each other regularly. Our main goal was to have a good time.” The choice of team name set the tone. In a sport full of Warriors and Savages, the Bay Area Baracus—or “BA Baracus,” after the Mr. T character on the ’80s TV show “The A-Team”—stood out as a team that didn’t take itself too seriously. The Baracus jerseys include a gold collar, a nod to the gold chains Mr. T wore on the show, and the club’s motto, Miseror Stultum, is the Latin for Mr. T’s old catchphrase, “I pity the fool.” But Amherst lore crept in as well. The team’s logo is a play on the Amherst rugby logo, itself a play on the Amherst seal, but the rays of light radiate from the San Francisco Bay Bridge, not a rugby ball or a book. And the Baracus’ pregame call of “Relentless,” the line-out calls, and most Baracus plays were born not under California skies, but at the base of Memorial Hill.
The Jeff-rich Baracus quickly found a niche in Northern California rugby. NorCal is the country’s premier region for the sport, home to U.C. Berkeley (holders of the past 12 national collegiate champion-ships) and to more rugby teams per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. “There are good teams in the area, but I thought I was done playing, because most rugby players are [jerks],” said Floris Iking, a 2000 graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and
a liquidation consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. “With the Baracus, I finally found a team of guys I’d actually want to spend time with after the game.” As Perry Pickert noted, “There is a certain poetic nature of Amherst Rugby: self-taught, small, scrappy but light-hearted and successful, that sets rugby apart from many other sports at Amherst.” That same spirit set the Baracus apart from the other teams in the Bay Area. In the birthplace of free love and the Grateful Dead, even rugby players make choices based on karma.
Fresh from years of wins at Amherst, the seven of us who founded the team were confident heading into the preseason. At a meeting at Dave Neale’s house, the team decided to attend only one preseason tournament, basing the decision not on the need to tune up as a team, but on the ability to sneak up on the competition during the season proper. “It was a little ridiculous,” said Chris Kaegi ’98, also a schoolteacher. “We hadn’t played a single game yet, and were assuming we’d win at will through nine months of rugby.”
Our debut came at a preseason tournament in Chico, a college town north of San Francisco that we would get to know well. We failed to set the league abuzz, going 1-2 in the tournament. Admittedly, our performance may have had something to do with our attire. With our newly designed gold-collared shirts on back order, we had played the tournament in the only uniforms we had enough of to outfit a whole team: Williams jerseys. After years of Amherst-Williams games, in which the losers give their jerseys to the winners, we were fully stocked.
The best thing to happen during the preseason was also the biggest: the addition of coach John Somers, a 6' 5" 280 lb. Irishman who had already coached teams to U.S. Division I and Division II national championships (we were breaking into Division III). “Kevin McCaffrey had told me about his brother’s team, but I’d seen enough startup squads come and go that I didn’t expect anything special,” says Somers today. “Somehow he got me out to a practice, and I remember thinking that these guys were real players—not out there to pound someone’s face in or settle a score, but real athletes, playing because they loved the game. That’s what you dream of as a coach. So I was there.”
The Baracus' gentle disposition gives the lie to the bumper sticker that says “Rugby players eat their dead.”
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 '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.”
Photos: Heather Somers
The men’s basketball team headed into postseason play with a stellar 20-3 record, earning the top seed in the NESCAC tournament. Season highlights included a 67-61 win over Williams in front of a raucous home crowd so enormous that it spilled out of the bleachers, and a midseason string of four straight victories by 29 points or more. Senior co-captain Steve Zieja surpassed Jamal Wilson ’97 as Amherst’s all-time leading scorer, collecting his 1,551st point in a 90-60 win over Bates on February 1. Amherst survived a scare from Bowdoin to advance to the second round of the NESCACs; the winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Their counterparts on the women’s side finished the regular season at 12-12. Amherst opened the season with an incredible 8-0 run, including domination of the Pioneer Valley Classic on December 6 and 7, but had a rough time of it during the month of January. Seniors Sarah Walker, Sarah Bozorg and Brooke Diamond finished their Amherst careers with a total of 64 wins over four seasons; other big contributors this year included junior Shannon Russell, who scored her 1,000th career point in a 68-46 win over Springfield, junior Caitlin Farrell and freshman phenom Katie Latham.
The men’s ice hockey team clinched a spot in the NESCAC Tournament, ready to battle Colby in the first round of play. The regular season ended with a flourish that included a 4-3 defeat of Williams on February 7 and a 4-3 overtime win over Tufts on February 15. Several players had strong seasons, including first-year Sean Lynch, who played well in goal for the Lord Jeffs. Women’s ice hockey is also headed into the postseason, after a strong finish that included victories over Colby and Holy Cross.
Men’s squash headed into the NISRA Team Championships at Princeton with a solid 7-7 regular record, in a season that began with shutouts of Tufts and Colby; women’s squash entered the WISA Singles Championships at Trinity with a record of 13-11. At the regular-season-ending Howe Cup Tournament, senior Susanna Burke received the Wetzel Award, recognizing seniors who began playing at a collegiate level and have exhibited both outstanding growth and a keen understanding of the game.
The swimming and diving teams had a dominant winter season. The men were 2002-03 Little Three Champions, finishing at 9-0 and defeating Williams for the first time since 1998 with an exciting 123.5-119.5 win. The women completed the regular season at 8-2, finishing third at NESCACs.
At the New England Division III Championships, the women’s indoor track team recorded an eighth-place finish, behind strong performances from senior tri- captains Kate Hamill and Laurel Kilgour, junior Alyson Venti, sophomore Carter Hamill and first-year Lyndsey Scott. Their counterparts on the men’s squad finished 15th; the team was paced all season long by, among others, senior tri-captains Alex Lenkoski and Pat Hayes, junior John Stanton-Geddes, sophomore Mike Page and first-year Ngai Otieno.