BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater Recreation Department’s high school rugby team won the New Jersey Division 1 State Championship game May 27, dethroning the Union team to become only the second state champions in the league’s history.
Union had reigned as state champions for five years, even defeating Bridgewater in the championship game last year, before losing to Bridgewater this year.
“What contributed to the win and that great season was our drive and the chemistry the team had together, and the fact that coming into the season, the only goal we had in mind was being state champions and that never changed,” said Bridgewater-Raritan High School senior Chris Cooke. “It feels amazing, knowing that you are part of a team that was the first one to defeat Union for the first time in the regular season last year, and now to be the only team to defeat them and be the state champion.”
The Bridgewater team was undefeated this entire season, and advanced to the finals after defeating the Highlanders of West Milford, 78–0 in the playoff game.
In the championship game, Bridgewater won, 32–19.
The Bridgewater rugby program began in 2014, and seven of the players on the team were freshmen on the inaugural team, and now graduated as state champion seniors.
“It was amazing to win the state championship,” said head coach Rich Beck. “A lot of our seniors started playing as freshmen on our original team in 2014, or joined as sophomores the following year. Our goal the last couple of seasons was to be the best team in New Jersey, and the players worked really hard to achieve this success.”
Beck said he started the team as a way to give back to a sport that he said has given him a lot since he started playing in 1995.
“I have been coaching high school rugby players for nine years now,” he said. “We also have a flag rugby team in Bridgewater for boys and girls in grades kindergarten through ninth.”
“No matter what the player’s age, it’s always an awesome feeling to see someone pick up a rugby ball and fall in love with the game,” he added.
Most of the players on the team attend Bridgewater-Raritan High School, and the team is a community league.
The 35 players on the team this year were Matt Alesandro, Kyle Amerman, Adam Armahizer, Cooke, Nicholas Cordero, Ryan DeVries, Brock Gandarillas, Xavier Garay, Dylan Glassberg, Joshua Glussky, Joey Haigh, Casey Hnasko, Liam Idell, Jack Juechter, Donny Kelton, Nick Koury, Doug Laputka, Eric Laputka, Joe Lockwood, James Maxton, Nicolas Mitchell, Joshua Molinilla, Chris Nice, Scott Parker, Grant Paylago, Mike Polanco, Dan Powelson, Mohammed Rashid, Miguel Rizarri, Ryan Salvatore, Phillip Smalling, Sean Smith, Chris Starkweather, Connor Torpey and Tommy Van Doran.
Along with Beck, assistant coaches were Jim Thur and Jason DelGrosso.
Beck said the players were committed to the team from the very beginning.
“Our defense was outstanding all season, and we have many dangerous runners that are able to break the gain line and finish for scores,” he said.
Ken Laputka, whose two sons were on the team, said he saw a flyer from Bridgewater Recreation about playing rugby four years ago. His son, Doug, played football in the fall and need a spring sport, so he thought rugby would be a good fit.
“After two or three practices, the boys had a scrimmage with two other teams,” Ken Laputka said. “I was blown away with how quickly the team knew the game and played it well.”
“I was also blown away with how the boys were taught to tackle properly,” he added. “I do not want to diminish the nervousness of seeing your son play this sport, but the sportsmanship and camaraderie is amazing.”
Idell, a senior at BRHS, said he began playing in his junior year, after listening to his father, who played rugby at Kutztown University, rave about the sport.
“The more I talked to him about it, the more I became interested,” he said.
Mitchell, also a senior, joined in the football off season two years ago, joining many of his friends who were already members of the team.
And the hard work and chemistry of the team was what contributed to the win, Mitchell said.
“I joined the team last year, and we had a similar season until the state championship where we had a painful loss to Union,” he said. “After that loss last year to Union, we became determined not to lose again, and we put in the time and effort in both the weight room and on the field to win.”
Idell said he believes the fact that the team played together and played smart rugby all season contributed to their success this year. He said they realized their mistakes throughout the season, and worked together to figure out what to do to fix them.
“We also have great coaches who always pushed us and educated us every practice about what we needed to do to play smart and be successful,” he said.
As for this year’s championship game, Idell said the team wanted payback from last year,.
“We came out strong from the start and pushed the tempo, which was exactly what we wanted,” he said. “Even though we started to let up a little toward the end, we kept our composure and finished out the game. A lot of us are seniors and some of us have been playing for four years, so we really wanted to finish out with a bang.”
“It feels great to be a state champ,”” he added. “We all had a blast this season, and it’s a great feeling to come out on top.”
Mitchell said it shows how far the team has come in four years to be only the second state champs in the league’s five-year history.
"After the loss to Union, we, as a team, gained the determination and swore to never feel like that again,” he said. “It gave us the motivation to push ourselves, improve our skills and allowed us to get past that same team this year in the state championship game.”
Laputka said he tried to get the word out about the rugby program, since he had coached many other sports for Bridgewater Recreation.
“I did what I could to help get the word out about the program and the rapid success of the team,” he said. “The families quickly bonded and looked forward to spending time every Sunday, watching the boys play.”
Laputka said he was so proud to see all the members of the team play at a very high level and beat Union. He said he was also proud of the coaches, who only work with the team twice a week.
“In the past four years, the team has been to three championship games,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to know that this group of young men were part of the success of the Bridgewater Recreation Rugby program.”
Doug Laputka said he is honored to be part of the original team.
“It’s an honor to be able to say that I was past of the original team and watch the program grow as I grew along with it,” he said. “My teammates throughout the four years have been the best ones I could ever have. Achieving something like this, not only is an amazing feeling for myself, but even a better feeing that as a team we achieved this.”
As the team moves on to next year, Beck said the goal is to try and win another state championship.
“We are graduating a lot of seniors this year, so we will need our underclassman to step up,” he said, “and we will need to recruit more athletes to start playing with the team as well.”
Idell said he hopes more kids will be interested in the game after seeing the success of this year. In addition, he said, he hopes the underclassmen push themselves to be even more committed to the team next year.
“As long as they push themselves and get more involved, I have full confidence they’ll do fine next season, especially with the guidance from Coach Rich and Coach Jim,” he said.