OHIO CITY, Oh - After falling just short of a National Championship in 2021, the Rugby Cats began the 2022 season with a chip on their shoulders, hungry for the program's first National Title. From May 19-21, the Wildcats competed at Moose Rugby Grounds in Elkhart, Indiana, battling the country's best high school rugby programs. During those three days, the Cats would face Xavier (NY), St. Thomas Aquinas (KS) and Gonzaga (DC). For the first time in program history, the Rugby Cats were crowned National Champions; they also became the first team from the Midwest to win the tournament.
What can be said about the job Head Rugby Coach Dan Arbeznik '00 has done for Saint Ignatius Rugby. Arbeznik brought the program to the school in 2005 and the club became a varsity sport in 2014. Since 2014, the Wildcats have claimed six State Championships and now adding to his collection a National Championship.
It was a long offseason for the Wildcats after falling to Herriman (UT) in the National Championship last season, 21-17. "I know the guys were hungry and it helped to have a significant group of returners from last year's team," explains Arbeznik. "Losing in the Seven's Fall Championships helped keep the guy's hungry and they were ready for the challenge."
"We wanted revenge," says Tribe Leader and Lock Sean Ward. "That was the worst experience, losing the championship last season."
The Wildcats moved forward, not dwelling on their loss in the title game a season ago. To begin the season, the Cats were firing on all cylinders. Saint Ignatius would open the season with victories against Royal Irish, Bishop Dwenger (IN) and Gonzaga (DC), outsourcing their opponents 141 to 12.
"We had a job to complete," says Tribe Leader and Fly Half Bobby Voth. "From the first practice we had to the moments before a game, we had a job to win a National Championship."
Perhaps what set this team apart from last year's team was the ability to travel internationally once again. In March, the Rugby team traveled to France to take the pitch against Sporting Club Universitaire de France, Tours Rugby Club and Rouen Normandie Rugby. "The experience for the kids being able to play with their teammates abroad and the quality of opponents were good," explains Arbeznik. "For me, it brings a feeling of completion; we were able to give everything to our students from what our program has to offer."
"I think our second game vs. France against Tours showed me we would be pretty special," says Tribe Leader and Wing Jack Dulik. "I have never seen us dig that deep before and that game showed me how special we were as a team."
The Wildcats would drop their first and only match of the season to Rouen Normandie Rugby, falling in that one 61-0. As the Cats made their way back to the States, there was just one goal, become National Champions. However, before they could compete for a title, the Cats would need to work on the little things to become perfect.
"There were small areas we needed to clean up during the season, such as learning when to throw the wide pass," says Arbeznik. "Coach Nick DiPietro '06 talked with the guys with boxing metaphors of having to work to throw the haymaker; we avoided the big mistakes throughout the season. Our guys committed towards the process of earning the hard yards."
For the quarterback of the offense in Voth, there was confidence that the team would put all the pieces together for a championship run. "There was basic stuff we needed to adjust," Voth explains. "But I was super comfortable, the things we needed, we had. We always had the want to win."
A significant storyline of the 2022 Rugby Cats was the number of returners from the Nation Champion Runner-up team. "We had some outstanding experience returning with the tandem of Marty Lenehan and Joey Georges at our center position, then Bobby Voth directing; he is a student of the game," Arbeznik says. "We joke about Bobby being a coach, but the success we have on the team, you need player coaches on the pitch."
As the National Tournament crept closer, the Rugby team became even more locked in and ready for the challenge ahead. "We were all excited and wanted to get back to the National Championship," explains Tribe Leader and Lock John Reddy. "We know it was game by game; the starters went against the reserves to prepare them for the first game at Nationals."
The reserves would play an impeccable 40 minutes in the National Quarterfinal against Xavier (NY) to keep the starters fresh for the title run. The Cats would get their first tournament score just minutes into the contest as a beautiful kick from Voth was recovered by Dulik in the try zone. Xavier would cut the Wildcat lead to 17-5 in the second half; that is when Arbeznik put in his regular starters to seal the deal. "The guys have been primed; there was this anticipation and nervous energy of wanting to get on the pitch," Arbeznik explains. "Our first group of guys vs. Xavier gave us quality minutes and we brought our first side guys on late and the engine was humming. There was no rust."
"That first group that stepped out onto the field did an amazing job," says Ward. "They set the tone for us on what we needed to complete."
Behind the scenes of the Championship run is quite the sight. Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach AJ Short '09 led the yoga, meditation and pool recovery sessions after each contest. The student-athletes would consume peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chocolate milk as soon as matches ended to promote recovery and drink a gallon of water a day to stay hydrated.
'It's a team effort the whole way through, the kids have to buy into the process and the coaches have to deliver on it," says Arbeznik. "Coach Short is doing the yoga and pool sessions and you have the coaches coming together for a game plan and, of course, the parental support, making the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Mo Sizemore was attending to every need of a kid before and after matches and without any one of those pieces, it just doesn't work."
The extra effort from the Wildcats made them the number one team in the Nation. "The preparation is sweet and it is game-changing," explains Voth. "We watched other teams walk into their hotels with pizza and candy. For us, we would finish the game and immediately begin recovery. It was a brutal rotation, but afterward, you would feel better."
In the National Semifinal, the Wildcats matched up against St. Thomas Aquinas (KS). This game demonstrated the dominance of the Saint Ignatius defense as the Saints would be shut-out 24-0. The storyline of this match was the 25-30 mph winds in Elkhart that afternoon. Despite the wind, Voth was perfect with his kicks and tries from Timmy Putka and Patrick Clink secured the win. "Wind can do a lot; fortunately, we have played quite a few games with strong winds," explains Arbeznik. "The guys were used to it, but it limits your attack, we have brilliant kids and they understood what we could and could not do."
"The wind in Elkhart is horrible. It affects the kicking game," says Dulik. "We had to trust our forwards and they did pretty well."
The Cats were one step away from their ultimate goal with the win. The opponent in the National Championship would be a familiar one for the Wildcats, the Gonzaga Eagles (DC). The Cats handled the Eagles considerably earlier in the season, winning the match 34-5. However, the Cats didn't rest on their laurels with the stakes higher than ever.
"Our kids were helped by playing Gonzaga; we have played them seven times in the last four years," Arbeznik says. "You don't want to be overconfident because you beat them in the past. Otherwise, you'll be humbled pretty quickly. Gonzaga has been gunning for us, they've lost a couple of times in a row, but they can identify the mistakes they have made to improve."
As soon as they knew Gonzaga would be their opponent, the tribe leaders got to work for the student-athletes. "Gonzaga plays a similar game to us where they like to kick when they have the wind," says Reddy. "We know how to gameplan against that, which helped us overall. We were more physical and we were confident that we could win."
As the sun rose on Championship Saturday, there was a sense that the day would be unique as the student-athletes prepared all morning for the afternoon match. The team came together in the hotel conference room for one final time before making their way to Moose Rugby Grounds. Coach Arbeznik presented the championship jerseys. The same jerseys were worn in 2014 when Saint Ignatius won their first State Championship.
"Heading into the championship game, there is obviously nerves," says Ward. "It's always harder to beat a team twice in a season and we were able to accomplish that."
The Wildcats were rolling early against their Jesuit rival, as back-to-back tries within minutes of each other would come from Joey Georges and Nate Polinko. A Voth penalty kick would have the Cats in a comfortable position with a 17-0 advantage. But the job was not finished. "Gonzaga tried to have a Cinderella story," explains Voth. "The only time they defeated this senior class was our freshman year. We saw them beginning to develop this story; our mindset was not allowing a Cinderella story."
The Eagles would fight back in the second half, getting their first try of the contest in the opening minutes of the second half. A Voth penalty kick would extend the Wildcat lead to 20-7; however, with around 10 minutes remaining, a line-out by Saint Ignatius would go wrong as the Eagles would recover a loose ball in the try zone to cut the Wildcat lead to 20-14. It was crunch time in Elkhart.
"The scrum on our end with about five minutes remaining in what was the deciding factor," says Ward. "We gave our last push and stole the ball and we got the ball out wide to Jack that set up a penalty."
With about two minutes left to play in the match, the biggest kick of the season awaited Voth. "I have to make this kick," emphasizes Voth. "The whole season, if the kick is on the sidelines, no worries, but down the middle is when I get nervous because it's too easy. That was the most concentrated I have been for a kick."
Time and time again, Voth came through and this time, it was no different; the senior gave the Wildcats a 23-14 lead with time winding down. As time expired, it was only fitting that it would be Voth to kick the ball out of play to solidify the Cats National Championship season. As the team rushed the field to celebrate, coach Arbeznik took a step back to take in the moment.
"It was a culmination of hard work," says Arbeznik. "I took a step back to take in the moment and watch our players, coaches and fans celebrate; this is who we do it for."
"It was a feeling I have never had before," Dulik says. "All the hard work this team has put together and it finally comes out to what you want; everything we did this year was worth it."
For Voth, he celebrated this Championship with his dad Robert Voth '88. Coach Voth is an assistant on the freshman club team and works closely with the development of the program. "I have never seen him so happy before, he didn't know how to process it and to this day, he is still processing it," says Bobby. "He did so much for me; he has been supportive throughout my training. He has a super long work schedule, but he takes time out of that to support the freshmen and build the program's future."
The senior class has left their mark on the program forever, claiming its first-ever National Championship. "They have put their stamp on that jersey and history book," explains Arbeznik. "There is no forgetting those guys; they will forever have their lore in Saint Ignatius Rugby."
Odd enough, the season isn't over for the Wildcats as they will be competing for their seventh State Championship on Saturday, June 4, at Fortress Obetz in Columbus.
This will be a season that will live forever in the legacy of Saint Ignatius Rugby and coach Arbeznik has a final message to all of those involved with the program this season.
"A special thanks to all of our coaches from the varsity level to freshmen level. Without their efforts on every level, then the club doesn't function. It takes a collective effort; this is a win for the club and the Saint Ignatius High School."