As is tradition, the Saint Ignatius rugby program will play some of the best high school rugby teams the United States and the world have to offer in 2019.
The 2019 slate, as built by Head Coach Dan Arbeznik '00 and his coaching staff, starts on February 23 and ends on May 11. The schedule is filled with 15 games against quality opponents, including foes from Washington D.C., Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, South Africa, and Ireland.
"I think we have a really good schedule," Arbeznik said. "It's tough, but we're used to tough schedules. We embrace those kinds of things."
The rugby program enters its seventh year of existence as a varsity sport at Wildcat High and its 15th year as a team under Arbeznik. The Rugby Cats have seen no lack of success along the way, capturing four Division I RugbyOhio State Championships. The Wildcats will look for their third straight crown in 2019.
The journey to a three-peat begins with a trip east in late February.
The Wildcats will start the 2019 campaign against one of the nation's premier programs, Gonzaga College High School out of Washington, D.C. In 2018, one of Gonzaga's only two losses came against Saint Ignatius, in a 19-14 decision.
"Those guys will be looking for revenge," Arbeznik said. "Those guys aren't used to losing. They've been preparing 12 months for the rematch."
The lone open date of the schedule is on March 2. Arbeznik and the Wildcats are hoping to find one or two opponents to play on that weekend.
"I'm hoping to get the March 2 date filled with a couple of opponents to get our guys more game-time leading into our tour in Ireland," said Arbeznik. "We graduated so many guys from last year that our guys need that opportunity to get on the field together and build that cohesion."
The Wildcats will then head to Columbus on March to meet an up-and-coming foe – Fishers. The Indiana school has bloomed into a tough program in recent years, and will pose a good test for the Cats. The neutral site contest will be played at Dublin Coffman High School.
In mid-March, the Wildcats will enjoy a nice homestand. The men of Ohio City will play four games in three days against Detroit Catholic Central (MI), Brunswick, Perrysburg, and Saint Joseph's Prep (PA).
"That's exciting for us, because we don't get to play many games at home," Arbeznik explained. "Of all of the opponents that weekend, three of the four aren't typical opponents we face. Catholic Central out of Detroit reached out to us over the summer, asking to get on our schedule, and we're happy to accommodate for that. We started to put together the event once we started hearing from other teams. St. Joe's Prep out of Philly is a traditionally strong team from that area will make the trip out for the weekend. We'll billet them in the homes of all the kids here, so it'll be a good cultural exchange with our fellow Jesuit schools. All of the kids will get a chance to learn how the way things are done in Philly and vice versa."
Following the three-day homestand, the Wildcats will gear up for a trip to the Emerald Isle.
The Wildcats are returning Ireland for the first time since 2015, playing a 3-game swing amidst other activities. With Arbeznik leading the way, the Rugby Cats are in for the trip of a lifetime.
The team will land in Dublin before heading to Galway. The Wildcats will stay in Galway for 4 nights before heading back to Dublin to enjoy the country's capital for 5 nights.
The Wildcats will play in three matches during the trip. On March 23, the Rugby Cats will face Somerset College (South Africa) in Galway before battling Coolmine RFC (IRE) and Terenure College (IRE) in Dublin on March 26 and 30.
"It's interesting the way that has come together," Arbeznik said. "We plan all of our own trips. We typically try to get ourselves against Jesuit schools, but we found out that Ireland has become quite the popular tourist destination. Many of those Jesuit schools are booked up and cooperate with the tour companies to fill up their schedules beyond their league schedule. They weren't too keen on playing us this year, so we had to dig deep into our bag of tricks in order to make these connections.
"Terenure is traditionally a very strong team out of Dublin. That will probably be our toughest match," Arbeznik continued. "We found Coolmine via Connor Fitzpatrick, one of our coaches, who has some family connections with the club over there. And in talking with some of our contacts on the west coast of Ireland, someone within the travel industry was hosting Somerset, a team from South Africa. We connected and said, 'Absolutely, we'll get on the soil with another South African team in Ireland.'"
Besides the rugby, highlights of the trip will include training sessions with pro coaches in Galway and Dublin, a trip to the Cliffs of Moher, a climb to the top of Croagh Patrick, along with visits to many other hotspots of Irish culture. The Wildcats will also attend a match between Munster Rugby out of Limerick and Zebre Rugby Club out of Italy. The team will watch from the suites, enjoying a meal and time after the match with both teams. A lucky Wildcat will receive a game jersey after the contest.
"It's action-packed. I typically over-schedule us, so I'm trying to take a bit of a step back, but I'm never entirely successful with that," Arbeznik joked.
Once the Wildcats return home to Cleveland, the race to the postseason begins.
The Rugby Cats will head down I-71 to Brunswick on April 5 for a road match. Arbeznik calls the Blue Devils a "quality side," and a dangerous one to play. Brunswick will be moving up to the Division I level after a restructuring of RugbyOhio. About 40 teams will be in Division II this season, with more promotions in the coming years.
The next match on the schedule is circled on every calendar. The Wildcats will host St. Edward on Saturday, April 13 in a rematch of last season's title bout.
"St. Ed's will obviously be super tough again," Arbeznik said. "They're always one of the best teams in the country. We get to host it here at Ignatius, so we're hoping for good support from the school community for that."
Following the rivalry showdown, the Rugby Cats will hit the road for two contests – Medina Highland on April 17 and Cathedral out of Indianapolis on April 27. The latter contest will be held at Fred Beekman Park at Ohio State. Cathedral is a "quality, nationally renowned" side.
The regular season concludes with the Cincinnati teams – Archbishop Moeller on May 4 and St. Xavier on May 11. The Crusaders come to town for the first time since 2017 and the Wildcats will head south to play a young Bombers squad.
"They're always a stout side," Arbeznik said of Moeller. "They're tough to get through. They upset us at home a couple years ago, so we'll be looking to exact our own sort of revenge. St. Xavier asked to play later to develop the team, we'll finish the regular season with them."
All in all, the 2019 season will be full of challenges and possibilities for a young, strong Saint Ignatius rugby team. As the season quickly approaches (just 36 separate the Cats from competition), look for a season preview soon.
See below for the full schedules: