Salty Thompson must have liked what he saw when he traveled to North Carolina in early March to watch the Gonzaga College High School rugby team square off against Charlotte Catholic.
Two months after he watched the Eagles win that match and then face a locally selected all-star team the next day, three Gonzaga players — Joe Whalen (Rockville), Andrew Iscaro (Olney) and Ben Cima (Bethesda) — received word from the USA High School All-Americans rugby head coach that they had been selected to represent the country with 28 others on a month-long tour of South America in July.
The tour, which began on July 11 in Santiago, Chile, takes the players through three different countries — Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina — in which they will play a series against the respective national team from each.
“How many high school athletes get to go play in three countries?” asked Gonzaga Director of Rugby Lee Kelly. “Our three both went with Gonzaga to play in Spain and Portugal this year so these guys have played in five countries against top-notch teams.”
The Gonzaga rugby program has drawn the attention of All-American coaches for more than a decade. This season the Eagles won their 13th consecutive Potomac Rugby Union championship, their fourth Metro Area Varsity Rugby Conference crown and their third consecutive Jesuit Classic title, defeating then-No. 1-ranked Xavier High School in New York.
“This is definitely one of the best years in athletics I’ve had in my life,” said Dominic Plantamura (Kensington), who has been named speaking captain for next year. “Our coach was always telling us, ‘Everybody wants a piece of Gonzaga. Everybody’s going to come out and want to score and that would make their season: to score on Gonzaga.’”
It’s not especially surprising that scoring on Gonzaga was equivalent to a victory for most teams. The Eagles went 16-1-1 this season, their lone loss coming in overtime in the national playoff semifinals. It was a loss due in large part to the unique rules put in place for the national tournament. Players are not allowed to exceed 90 minutes of play per day, reducing the games from 70 minutes to 45. After going through the first two tiebreakers with no verdict, the match was taken to a kick-off in which each team chose five players in a sudden-death style field goal competition. That’s like having a basketball game come to a close with a free throw contest.
It took 11 kickers before Gonzaga finally lost.
“It was a heartbreaking loss,” Kelly said. “That’s a tough way to lose or to win.”
The defensive unit was a fortress anchored by Whalen, who was selected as a captain for the opening game against Chile and led the All-American team in tackles in their 24-17 victory in Vina del Mar on July 15. The team then drubbed Chile 43-15 in Santiago, 1,700 feet above sea level, on July 18.
“It’s a dream come true,” Plantamura said. “It’s pretty much exactly what you want. To represent the nation is a huge honor.”
All three Gonzaga players started in the opening game with Whalen playing every minute, Iscaro finding his time in the final 10 minutes and Cima entering midway through the second half, making his impact with a penalty kick.
Plantamura joined the Eagles on their trip to the Portugal Rugby Festival at the end of March as the first American team to ever participate. He played a part as Gonzaga shut out Club Argentino 10-0 and snuck past St. Julians 7-5 before being bludgeoned 55-0 by Biarritz, a professional club in southern France, and losing in the semifinals 12-7 in a rematch with St. Julians.
“Our kids work extremely hard on becoming good rugby players,” said Kelly, whose son, Connor, has played in six different countries and competed for the University of Tennessee. “They can go practically anywhere in the world and they will open their arms to us.”
The All-American trio will descend upon Montevideo and then move onto Buenos Aires on July 28 with the rest of the American contingent to play two more series with the national team from each. As their high school careers come to close, so does a reign of Gonzaga rugby that Kelly said is unprecedented.
“I’ve never had this many [All-Americans,]” he said. “They are elite players and we’ve had the fortune of a lot of guys go through our system. It’s hard to compare some of them because they play different positions but we’re proud of all of them. It’s quite an honor to play for your country and we’re extremely proud of all of our guys.”