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Shoreline Spartans Building Burgeoning Rugby Program
The Shoreline Spartans rugby program’s high school team had big expectations for the 2020 season, but unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on the team’s first 15-on-15 campaign. (Photo courtesy of Matt Fragola)
The Spartans cleaned up the beach of the Westbrook Elks Club as part of their commitment to community service. (Photo courtesy of Matt Fragola)
The Shoreline Spartans rugby program features a K-8 flag team for both boys and girls. (Photo courtesy of Mike Meyer)
The Shoreline Spartans rugby program includes a high school team that features several local players. (Photo courtesy of Matt Fragola)
The Spartans’ K-8 program gives girls and boys a chance to learn the game of rugby together through a flag form of competition. (Photo courtesy of Mike Meyer)
There are a variety of sports played along the Connecticut shoreline, and rugby sometimes gets short shrift among them. While the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) offers rugby as school-sanctioned athletic endeavor, many of the local schools don’t offer rugby programs. However, the Shoreline Spartans rugby program is giving local athletes an opportunity to compete in a sport that has worldwide appeal to millions of players and spectators.
The Spartans’ origins date back to 2016, when Mike Meyer and a few of his former Connecticut Grey Rugby Football Club teammates decided to form a rugby program along the shoreline. Meyer had been coaching rugby at Mitchell College in New London and enlisted the help of Tom Flynn and Garret Hofer to build up a team. The Spartans are centered in Clinton, but accept athletes from many area towns such as Westbrook, Old Saybrook, Deep River, Essex, Chester, Madison, Killingworth, New London, East Lyme, Milford, and Wallingford.
“I was coaching at Mitchell College and playing for the Connecticut Grey at the same time. I ran into to another parent who also played, Garret Hofer. It was November 2016 when we got the idea to start a program in Clinton. We also brought a teammate of mine, Tom Flynn. We set it up and made it official with the not-for-profit designation,” Meyer said. “We had our first practice March 2017, and we had a game at the end of that month. At first, we just coached our own kids. We had a bunch of 1st graders. Now, our kids are in 5th grade.”
The Spartans’ program began to swell in numbers after other parents and youngsters heard about it. What was at one time just a small team of elementary school students eventually ballooned to multiple teams featuring young athletes from kindergarten to high school.
“We had just seven kids and played against younger teams from towns like Wethersfield and Cheshire. By word of mouth, over time people started seeing it, and the youth program grew,” said Meyer. “By the end of that first season in 2017, we had 24 kids in the program. We started getting older kids, too. Now, in our youth program we have 45 kids, and in 2019 we were growing so much, we realized we needed to start developing a high school program for them. We started the high school team in the spring of 2019 and brought on Matt Fragola to coach.”
Now, the Spartans’ program is divided into players from kindergarten through 8th grade (K-8), 9th grade through 12th grade (9-12), and a 19-and-under (19-U) team. The K-8 program has kindergartners through 4th-graders competing against like teams and 5th-graders through 8th-graders playing against their peers. The K-8 program is flag rugby with no tackling and includes both boys and girls on the teams. The high school program is boys only, but there was a girls’ team in the works before the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The K-8 team was able to play during the pandemic since flag rugby is considered lower risk than full-contact.
“There are two ways of playing rugby—7s or 15s. We had 14 kids on the team in the first year, but last year before we were shut down, we had 26 players. We were going to be able to play with 15 players,” Meyer said. “After two weeks of practice, we got the notification that we would have to shut down. Would have been the second year for the high school team, and the first year for 15s and of the girls’ high school program. It was progressing really nicely. We were really feeling confident going into the season. A lot of kids were coming in already conditioned. That’s always a big deal.”
The Spartans are more than just a program that’s focused on competition. They also support charitable causes and community service, and that was a major point of emphasis for the program’s founders, according to Coach Meyer.
“At the heart of rugby is community, so we want the players to get involved in charitable causes. We do the toy drive out of Milford’s Boys’ and Girls’ Village. We also do a blood drive with Rugby Connecticut. We were able to get 1,300 pounds of food in October to help out families in Clinton. The high school team did a cleanup at the beach for the Elks Club in Westbrook,” Meyer said. “We really let the kids run it. The coaches and the family help, but the kids have a meeting to talk about how they will do it. Then we meet with them to check on their progress and see what they need help with.”
Part of the equation for the Spartans’ high school team is the solid leadership of its athletes. Coach Fragola makes sure that the captains have the support of their fellow squadmates.
“We have a meeting with the entire team, and I have everybody write down who they want to elect as captains. We have a president, as well,” Fragola said. “The president is more responsible for delegating off-field activities like the Elks’ Club community service project, where the kids went and dug out all the debris to clean out the beach. The president is responsible for setting that up.”
The Spartans’ first high school season featured several great players like team president Evan Baptista, captain Josh Fragola, and captain Rex Smith, who are all from Clinton; fellow Clinton residents Jordan Armstrong, David Fortuna, Mike Fragola, Declan Hayes, Kevin Hicks, Ryan Hromadka, Matthew Hynek, and AJ Supik; along with Ben Gawleck of Deep River.
Coach Fragola lauded his the character of his players, and he feels proud about the Spartans’ dedication to developing quality people, as well as athletes.
“There are a lot of people who want to give back to rugby, because they got so much out of it. I don’t play anymore, but I still consider myself a rugby player. What we try to instill these guys more than anything is character. It’s more about the team than individuality,” said Fragola, whose coaching staff include Madison resident Andrew Cialek. “We want players who are respectful to their teammates, opponents, refs, and themselves. I don’t care as much about talent as I do integrity. I took more pride in our first season was the character of the kids who started the program. We had talent, too, but we tried to explain it’s not about how fast or strong you are. It’s about playing with your teammates and making the team better.”
With COVID-19 causing the cancellation of the 2020 season, there are several details still up in the air for the Spartans. Coach Fragola hopes that this break in action doesn’t slow the momentum of the program. Also, if the rugby season conflicts with CIAC sports, it makes it hard to compete against teams like Fairfield, Wethersfield, Cheshire, Southington, West Hartford, and Ridgefield.
“The biggest concern I have is numbers. You can’t have a rugby team without players. A lot of our current players are graduating. A big question is that some of the winter sports are going to have their seasons pushed back or even canceled. If they get pushed back, it means our rugby season wouldn’t be able to start when it usually does. That makes it hard,” Fragola said. “Where we are in Clinton, our kids are involved in basketball, wrestling, baseball, and so we have to work with all these other sports. Greenwich, Ridgefield, Fairfield—they have long-running programs with players who aren’t involved in other sports.”
Fortunately, the Spartans have a good contingent of players developing in the K-8 program to eventually feed the full-contact competition of the high school level in the near future. There should also be plenty of athletes to finally have both a boys’ team and a girls’ team, albeit a little later than originally planned.
“We started the program with a core group that played all these different sports. The youth program is a group whose main sport is rugby. When they come into high school, that will be their main sport. That’s the importance of a youth program. We won’t have to worry about their practices conflicting with their other sports,” said Fragola. “I’m excited for the future of the program. One of the great things is how many coaches we have and their dedication. They are always available to help.”