DOWNINGTOWN >> The sports landscape is littered with upstarts going from worst to first in division or conference action, but what the Bishop Shanahan Rugby Football Club accomplished over the last five years is on a whole different level.
A brand new rugby sevens program in 2013, the Eagles initially had trouble finding enough players to field a team. Five seasons later, Shanahan hoisted the trophy as the winner of the National High School Rugby Sevens Championship.
“It really was unbelievable to finally get over the hump, and in such a very quick trajectory,” acknowledged head coach Mark Schaeffer.
Unbeaten in its last 28 matches dating back to last fall, the Eagles completed the astonishing turnaround last month with a hard-fought 19-12 decision in the finals against county rival Malvern Prep at Talen Energy Stadium. It was the kind of title surge a lot of teams dream about, but very few are able to attain.
“I was in shock,” Schaeffer said thinking back on the June 2nd clincher. “It’s always been this unattainable goal, so when it happened, I didn’t know how to react.
“This team continues to surprise me, even though this group hasn’t lost a game.”
Shanahan began fielding a traditional 15-player rugby club team back in 1993 under the guidance of Greg Karabin. But not long after governing body Rugby Pennsylvania began to recognize rugby sevens (seven players per side) in 2012, Schaeffer and Coatesville’s Chris Ponto started the Eagles’ program. Sevens is to rugby what three-one-three is to basketball.
“It’s a shorter game – with two seven minute halves,” explained Schaeffer, who resides in Penn Township. “There is more room on the field so it is a faster, more exciting, game.”
To say the program got off to a rocky start would be an understatement. Initially, Schaeffer and Ponto frequently found themselves with just six players to practice.
“We did terrible,” Schaeffer admitted.But things began looking up soon thereafter. Good athletes who were eager to learn the sport started to have some limited success, which bolstered the numbers — and then more savvy rugby siblings began moving up to the high school level.
“We have three guys on this team who had older siblings play for us,” Schaeffer said. “To get them as freshmen was a big plus.
“It helps us expedite the learning curve. There is so much to learn and so many little nuances to this game. We had traditionally got a lot of sophomores, juniors and even seniors, so there is a lot to cover in a limited amount of time.”
The run to the national crown got underway last fall, when Shanahan went 22-0, and edged arch rival Downingtown to capture the Rugby Pennsylvania sevens state title in early November.
“We had never even won a tournament leading up to the state title,” Schaeffer pointed out. “After we won the first tournament, the coaching staff was going crazy, celebrating. We had no idea what was to come.
“The state title was a big indication of what was to come.”
Fast forward to this spring, and the 18-team tournament to determine the national championship, and Shanahan was certainly not the favorite. But in pool play held at a site in Malvern, the Eagles blasted three opponents by a combined score of 128-5.
“None of those teams had seen us before and we kind of used that to our advantage,” Schaeffer explained.
In the quarterfinals, Shanahan met up once again with Downingtown, and eked out a taut 14-10 victory that could have gone either way.
“There has always been a huge rivalry between Shanahan and Downingtown,” Schaeffer said. “And we knew it was going to be a tight game – we weren’t going to blow them out.”
In the semis against ‘Rock,’ an all-star team from Texas, the undersized Eagles used their speed and agility to cruise to a 38-17 triumph.
“They were very big physically, which had us concerned because we are smaller,” Schaeffer pointed out. “(Rock) didn’t know what hit them. We have these fast guys who were zigzagging between their big guys.”
The previous two rounds were held on fields adjacent to Talen Energy Field, but the final took place inside the 18,000-plus seat home of MLS’s Philadelphia Union. The opponent, Malvern Prep, had won the crown in 2017 and knocked off Shanahan in the quarterfinals along the way.
“I didn’t want the moment to be too big for the guys, but the rules were the same, the grass was still green,” Schaeffer said. “It was the first time we’d ever played in a stadium, but the guys were confident.”
As expected, it was a battle between teams with similar styles. Thanks to two tries by senior Matt Riotto and another by junior Andrew Scheuerman, the Eagles inched in front, 19-12. But the title wasn’t secured until Shanahan thwarted Malvern’s last second comeback bid.
“I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have really good athletes,” Schaeffer acknowledged.
“So with the players we have and the system we run, we knew we were going to be successful in the tournament. But in a game like sevens, anything can really happen. One bad break or a bounce of the ball can cost you.”
Riotto was the star of the tourney, scoring 13 times in six matches. Headed to St. Joseph’s to play college rugby, Riotto was the Eagles leading scorer last fall and this spring even though he didn’t take up the sport until his junior year.
Senior captain, Mackenzie Cassidy, is headed to Penn State, where his brother, Connor, currently plays. Their father, Keith Cassidy from Phoenixville, played rugby internationally and is on Schaeffer’s coaching staff.
And junior Dalton Musselman is Shanahan’s ‘fly-half,’ which is essentially the quarterback in rugby. He’s already been voted team captain for next season.
“Dalton is a key igniter of our team,” Schaeffer said.Through it all, Schaeffer isn’t quite sure if the program has the staying power to remain a national force. But with players like Musselman and Scheuerman leading the way, Shanahan should definitely be in the mix for another season.
“This group was committed to coming to practice and doing the little things on their own that you really can’t coach,” he said. “People always talk about the intangibles, and these kids really have that.
“The challenge as coaches is to try to continue the success once all these guys leave. I’m wondering myself if this is a flash in the pan or the new normal for Shanahan rugby.”