Rugby is a famously rough-and-tumble sport – no pads, no helmets, just teams of 15 battling each other for the ball. But for the Morton Mustang rugby teams, it’s all about love.
For some, it was love at first sight.
“I came out here and tried out with a couple of friends and, you know, I fell in love with the sport,” said senior Cesar Ramirez.
Others say they learned to love the democratic nature of the game.
“It gives me opportunities that I wouldn’t get in other sports, like the opportunity to get a ball and be able to run with it and express myself that way,” senior Antonio Acosta said.
“I love the free aspect of it,” agreed senior Cruz Hernandez. “Football, not everybody gets the ball and rugby, everybody has a chance with the ball.
Still others value the team-building aspects.
“I just love the discipline every player has and I just love the hospitality that the team and all the players gave me despite me not knowing how to play,” said senior Alexis Galeno.
“It’s about the team effort, it’s also about building like certain specific friendships and relationships with not only the coaches but the teammates,” said senior Azzare Martinez.
“And then you bring it onto the field and you can connect,” said senior Taniya West. “You know what to do with each other just by a look.”
And for some, it’s just about getting out there and knocking over your opponent.
“When you see the girl like running up to you and you know her footing is off, there’s just something off about it, you can just do a little swipe and then they just fall right there,” senior Melissa Corral said. “It’s the best feeling.”
“I love how we tackle. I love to tackle,” said senior Aseel Jadallah. “When I tackle, I imagine big teddy bears on the field and I’m like, this is fun!”
Head coach Aaron Sweeney says it’s all part of the game plan for the Mustang rugby teams in west suburban Berwyn and Cicero.
“One of the cool things about rugby is it looks like guys beating the heck out of each other, girls beating the heck out of each other too,” Sweeney said. “And then after the game is over, you don’t just shake hands, you sit down, you actually eat a meal together, and I get a kick out of kids from completely different walks of life hanging out after a rugby match.”
Building a successful rugby program in the deeply Latino Morton high schools was a long shot. Though it has made inroads in Argentina, the British-born sport is still most popular in New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. But in 2003, Sweeney, who played rugby at the University of Illinois, and two fellow teachers decided to give it a try.
“We just scheduled one game that first year just to see if we could do a rugby team here at Morton. We found out we could and based on the strength of that, it got bigger and bigger every year,” said Sweeney. “Over time, [we’ve] had some success on the field, won three state championships, six JV state championships. We’re very proud of that, but I guess what we’re more proud of is, we’ve got 45 guys out trying to use rugby as a vehicle to be better people.”
In 2018, Mustang-player-turned-coach Ricardo Santillan decided it was past time to pass the ball to Morton girls, too.
“Since I was playing in 2007-2011 we always had managers that wanted to play rugby and didn’t get the opportunity to,” Santillan said. When he was given the green light to start a girls’ team, Santillan said, “I didn’t know what to expect at that first tryout, but we had over 300 girls come out. So we want to keep growing that and just build equity.”
Over the past two years, the pandemic dealt some blows to both teams. Sweeney had put together what he says was one of the best Morton boys’ teams ever in 2020.
“Then the season got cut and then COVID hit the Cicero Berwyn area particularly hard. A year later we had 19 kids in the whole program, it was like we were starting over.”
But Sweeney says interest rebounded with a return to in-person school and he’s counting on this year’s seniors to keep sharing the rugby love.
“When we’re remote learning, you don’t have that rugby kid next to another kid saying, ‘hey, this is really fun, you should check it out.’ And that’s why I’m so glad that we’re back in person. We got our kids spreading the gospel of rugby.”