Andrea Rolf

Cleveland's St. Joseph Academy is the girls high school rugby powerhouse you never knew about

In May the St. Joseph Academy Jaguars girls rugby team won their first single-school national championship. Take a look inside the program that went from nothing to the 'ship.

Throughout Cleveland sports history, many teams have enjoyed memorable runs of dominance. The mid-nineties Indians played as well as anyone in the league. The Browns of 1950-55 enjoyed a tremendous run of exceptional play. The Cavaliers are in the midst of a similar stage of excellence, knocking on the door of the first title the city has seen since 1964. While those clubs are well known, you might not be aware of the burgeoning dynasty at 3470 Rocky River Drive. On May22, 2016, St. Joseph Academy Jaguars girls rugby team won the inaugural Single-School Division I National Championship. It’s yet another piece of hardware for an already crowded trophy case, and marks the proper arrival of a rugby powerhouse.

For those who do not closely follow girls high school rugby (where "a few" may be an overestimation) 2016 marks a historic shift in the organization and setup of the sport at the national level. Because rugby does not enjoy the same uniform structure as high school basketball or football, teams will often consist of students from multiple schools. These club teams previously played single-school teams in the same national tournament. However, the 2016 National Championship Tournament marks the first time that the tournament was split between the club and single school brackets. The change was a welcome one for the team's head coach, Jaime Cleary, and the Jaguars of St. Joe's. Near the end of the season the Jags ranked fourth nationally, but the three higher ranking units were all club teams. In order to qualify for the tournament a school would need to complete an application and furnish a rugby CV including ranking, state titles in hand, how many players on the team, and references. As Cleary submitted the application it struck her how far the team has come in less than a decade.

When Coach Cleary arrived at St. Joseph’s in 2007, the cupboards were not just bare, the house had not been built and the plot was covered in weeds. That year the school decided to allow the formation of a club rugby team which won out over lacrosse. For the first season the club was loosely affiliated with the school; they could use the cafeteria and locker rooms, but they were not an official athletic arm of the institution. A smattering of girls joined the team, many of whom showed up to practice on the first day knowing next to nothing about the sport. The first season went about as well as you would expect for an expansion team; the Jaguars lost every game. They only played in the state tournament because otherwise there would not have been enough clubs to fill out the bracket. They lost that game too. At the end of the season Cleary felt pangs of doubt. She recalled in the moment, “I thought to myself I’m horrible. I thought I knew the game; I’ve been playing since 1996.” Heading into tryouts for the 2008 season, Cleary seriously wondered if anyone would even care enough to show up. Despite the inaugural season’s struggles, the students had noticed. When she arrived, twenty-nine girls were there ready to try their hand at rugby (fifteen take the field at a time). The team has grown every year since in both numbers and culture.

‘Hey coach, did you really need to run up that many points?’

So how does one start a team in a sport that most players have never attempted before? “We wrote ‘No Experience Necessary’ all over the flyers,” Cleary joked. Actually, the benefits of rugby are plentiful which helps in the sales pitch. The sport is inexpensive to play since one does not need much equipment besides cleats and a mouthguard. The players can play casually since there is no pressure of AAU basketball or Little League showcases. Plus, it’s the only available sport in which girls get to tackle. Still, after a few seasons, Coach Cleary recognized that she would need to start planting the seeds for the next generation before her older girls graduated. In 2010 she started the Junior Jaguars summer camp.

The four-day summer program allowed girls entering fifth through ninth grades a chance to familiarize themselves with rugby. Many of her current players’ younger siblings would come out to try on the game. The younger group, fifth and sixth grade, would play coed flag rugby to work on rules and basic gameplay. For seventh grade and up, the genders are split up so that each side can tackle. Those kids love to tackle. The program teaches them how to pass, tackle, and kick so by the end of the day the can play what Cleary calls, “The ugliest rugby you’ve ever seen.” While visually unappealing, Cleary could see the camps making a difference as girls would return year after year then eventually attend SJA. She also recognized it as a crucial moment to build the team culture.

“Graduating seniors would help us teach the camp. I would point to the campers and explain that all those girls want to be you. Find one, learn her name, find out what school she’s at, connect with them.”

The connection between the departing seniors and future Jaguars built a bridge and helped the younger players feel welcome and want to return.

After a few seasons gaining experience and sharpening their craft, the Jaguars won their first state championship in 2010. They repeated as state champs in 2011, but could not complete the three-peat in 2012. Undaunted, SJA proceeded to rattle off three more state titles from 2013-2015. Do they win? The Jags are 12-0 in their past two league seasons. Do they win big? On April 24 they triumphed 81-5. On April 17 they conquered 84-0. St. Joe’s well-conditioned players and deep bench allow them to relentlessly attack their opponents for the game’s entirety.

Of course, at the high school level, an eye popping score like 84-0 is not always celebrated by both teams. Cleary acknowledges, “Sure, people will ask ‘Hey coach, did you really need to run up that many points?’” St. Joe’s tries to get to a comfortable lead, usually around 30 points. At that time the subs go in. However, those entering players now have fresh legs and want to score just as much as the teammates they relieved. The Jags do their best to play fair. If an opposing team has to pull a player for injury and play down, Cleary will remove one of her girls to keep the numbers level. While it is easy to criticize a team for blowing an opponent out of the water, it is not so simple to tell the sophomore who just entered the game in the second half that she should not try as hard because the scoreboard dictates it. “Everybody doesn’t get a trophy. It’s hard to win. Players ask why they didn’t get to play on a given day.” She explains to them that it’s more important for the team to win than to have everyone get a turn. During the National Championship Tournament, SJA brought 26 girls on the trip. The starting fifteen played every minute of the three games, minus one brief injury substitution. St. Joseph’s team first mentality draws the admiration of opposing coaches as well.

Photo Credit: Andrea Rolf

“The most fantastic thing that has happened to rugby in Ohio.” That’s how Amherst Comets head coach Jim Yanosko described the Jaguars’ 2016 championship. Yanosko recognizes St. Joe’s as one of the most prominent teams in Ohio and the country. Playing them creates an opportunity for his school. “They were like most teams when they started out. They struggled, but in short order they were playing at a high level. It’s what every high school coach hopes for.” Yanosko also appreciates the opposing coaches’ discretion. “They know when the game will get out of hand and substitute accordingly.” Speaking to Yanosko it becomes clear how important rugby is beyond simple wins and losses. Five years ago he missed some time while receiving treatment for throat cancer. Coach Cleary helped out with the Comets while he was out. Moreover, the Jaguars helped raise money for cancer research and donated the money in his name. Yanosko respects how Cleary and her assistants, Mary Jo Reddy and Sara Leary, are teaching the game the right way, despite how lopsided the scores may become. “A couple teams hate them because they can’t beat them. I will beat them eventually; it’s just going to take time.” Yanosko doesn’t think the Jaguars’ success at the national level will go to their heads. “They’re good kids and good players. Good coaches too.”

The national tournament presented the toughest competition St. Joseph’s drew all season. In the first round St. Joe’s drew Kahuku Rugby from Hawaii. In a tight, low scoring affair the Jags squeaked by 19-17. Senior Rachael Kean (’16) scored two tries and was named game MVP. Post-game the clubs exchanged gifts including a signed poster for the far-travelling Hawaiians.  In the semi-finals SJA met up with longtime rivals Divine Savior Holy Angels from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Dashers historically had the Jaguars’ number defeating SJA in every previous matchup. Down 17-10 at the half, St. Joseph’s rallied in the second half to secure a 19-17 victory. Junior Annie Rolf (’17) earned game MVP honors. On the final day of the tournament, St. Joe’s faced Summit Rugby from Colorado. At the half the Jags trailed 14-12. The defense clicked in the second half as the Summit squad was held scoreless. Senior Becky Sullivan (’16) scored the dagger to secure a 29-14 victory. Kean again scored two tries and earned game MVP honors as well as the game ball.

“The most fantastic thing that has happened to rugby in Ohio.”

With so much success in the bank, where do the Jaguars go from here? Surprisingly, the state tournament. The Jaguars won their semifinal matchup against Brunswick this past Saturday 66-5 and will grapple with Lakewood in the state title game on June 3. Some of Coach Cleary’s seniors could leave with four state championships and a national title. That’s a UConn women’s basketball level of accolade. Looking further ahead, Cleary wants to return to the ‘ship. “It can’t just be a fluke. We had the hardest route, and we need to go back and show we are for real.”

Nine hours separate St. Charles, Missouri – the site of Lindenwood University and the national championship – and Cleveland, Ohio. After the clinching victory, the girls reveled in their triumph on the bus. They had unequivocally made history and their names will forever stand on the top of the list of victors. At the front of the bus, Coach Cleary sat quietly with her assistant coaches, basking in the team’s euphoria. After a long day she turned on her phone to a flood of texts and Facebook messages all congratulating the Jags on a job well done. Most of them came from former players. “You’re such an inspiration to me.” “This was inevitable.” “We are so proud of you.” Dozens of girls from previous classes, many of whom have already graduated from college, reached out to thank the coaches and commend the team. That moment, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies the culture of St. Joseph Academy Rugby. No matter where you are or how old you get, once you have been part of that program, you are always a Jaguar. 

CLE4Me Top Stories