Like a small blimp, the rugby ball floated across the bright evening sky above San Marcos High’s Warkentin Stadium. Thomas Coleman booted the ball between the goal posts, providing the winning margin in the Santa Barbara Stingrays’ 26-24 victory over the visiting team from Morrinsville College, a high school on New Zealand’s north island.
The score hardly mattered. The match last Friday evening was more about displaying the qualities of rugby — a high-energy sport with a tradition of sportsmanship that also offers opportunities for cultural exchange when teams go on tour.
“It’s awesome to play a team from another country, especially New Zealand, which is like a rugby haven,” said Anthony Gills, one of the standouts on the Santa Barbara team.
The Stingrays are a youth organization that complements the city’s other rugby squads named after sea creatures: the adult Grunions and their female counterparts, the Mermaids. Facing the Kiwis last week was the Stingrays U18 team, which is heading for the Southern California championships after winning the Tri-Counties region (Ventura/Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo).
Morrinsville is a small town in a rural area dotted with dairy farms — “24,000 cows within a 24-kilometer radius” is a local saying. The high school has 600 students, and among its alumni is Jacinda Ardern, the estimable prime minister of New Zealand. When she visited her alma mater, she was treated to a haka, a ceremonial dance originated by the indigenous Maori.
The Stingrays faced a warlike version of the haka before Friday’s match. The Kiwis broke out of a circle and advanced toward their hosts, stomping and chanting, until they stood eye-to-eye with them. While some of the Stingrays thought it was intimidating, Gills said, “It pumped me up.”
Gills was one of several players from Santa Ynez who fortified the Stingrays for this match. He scored a pair of tries — touchdowns in rugby lingo — including a long scamper after picking off a pass when the visitors threatened to score. Gills, a football quarterback at Santa Ynez High, said he enjoys rugby’s constant action. “It tests your body more,” he said. “You’re always moving. In football, you run for eight seconds and rest for 20.”
Tommy Schaeffer, who amassed almost 1,500 yards in two seasons as a San Marcos running back, agreed. “It’s a faster-paced game,” he said. “It’s about reaction and thinking on your feet. We’re all playmakers.” Schaeffer will play rugby next year at Central Washington University.
“The pace of the game is really fun,” said JJ Fuller, a Bishop Diego linebacker. “You’re flying around the field.”
Also scoring five-point tries for Santa Barbara were Ian Young of Dos Pueblos High and Alex Lammers. The third two-point conversion by Coleman, a Bishop Diego student, put them ahead 26-19. The Kiwis failed to convert their last try. They were driving downfield when the final whistle blew.
Santa Barbara was the first stop on Morrinsville’s tour, which precedes its season back home. “We had to shake a few cobwebs out of the closet,” said Roger Wilton, coach of the Kiwis. They held a training session on the beach in Santa Monica on Friday morning. They planned to attend a Dodgers-Brewers game in L.A. before heading to three more matches in San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C.
“It’s our first time in California,” Wilton said. “We usually go to Australia. It was my idea to start with a significant tour somewhere.” He said the Stingrays proved formidable against his boys, who were born into rugby. “Their skill work was very good; they matched up physically,” he said.
“We knocked them off their perch a little,” said Peter Crick, coach of the Stingrays U18 squad. A native Australian, Crick said he seeks to control the “football mentality” of his players. Sometimes they are penalized for dangerous tackles — slamming into a player without wrapping one’s arms around him is a no-no — and they have to work on their passing when tempted to keep running with the ball. “If a team holds you up, you’ve got to get to the ground and release it,” he said.
There were hugs all around after the match. The home team shouted its song (“Stingrays are we … where the palm trees meet the sea …”), and both sides shared in a tri-tip barbecue.
TOMMY JEWONFRIDDO: Meanwhile, in the U.S. national pastime, UCSB continues to excel. The Gauchos swept a three-game baseball series against UC Irvine and took over first place in the Big West Conference. They are ranked in the top 10 on three national polls.
Al Gionfriddo, who made one of the most famous catches in major-league history, a game-saving grab of a 415-foot blast from Joe DiMaggio in the 1947 World Series, called Santa Barbara home in the last decades of his life. UCSB centerfielderTommy Jew made a similar catch on Friday that will be long remembered by those who witnessed it. He sprinted toward right field after a deep windblown fly off the bat of Irvine’s Brendan Brooks, leaped high, and snagged the ball several feet above the top of the fence.
Jew’s catch prevented an Anteaters comeback in a game the Gauchos won, 4-1. The next day, UCSB’s bats were clattering in a 10-1 victory; and on Sunday, clutch pitching finished the Anteaters off, 3-2. The Gauchos’ three weekend starters — Ben Brecht (7-0), Jack Dashwood (5-0), and Rodney Boone (4-0) – are a combined 16-0; set-up man Mike McGreevy is 4-0; and closer Chris Lincoln has eight saves.
The Gauchos (27-5 overall) will host UC Davis in a series starting Thursday, April 18, at 3 p.m., the same time Friday, and 1 p.m. Saturday.