This story, written by Margaret Quilter, was originally run in the Times-Picayune, and has been republished below with permission from Quilter
As the high school rugby season prepares to kick off in mid-January, the New Orleans area has added its first public school rugby team: Lake Area New Tech Early College High School. The Catholic boys schools that already have teams have welcomed the addition with scrimmages and advice.
The Lake Area New Tech Early College High School rugby team, in white, shakes hands with the Brother Martin High School team after a scrimmage Thursday at Pratt Park.
Lake Area New Tech scrimmaged against one of rugby's local powerhouses, Brother Martin, at Pratt Park in December. The Lake Area New Tech Leopards held their own in a tighter game than the 19-5 score would indicate.
"After Christmas break you won't be able to stop us," said Troy Mack Jr., a senior who plays inside center for Lake Area New Tech.
Lake Area New Tech officials decided to join the Deep South Rugby league in September when senior Anthony Bertrand approached school counselor John Leitz with the idea of forming a team.
"We couldn't have a football team because we were a first-year high school, and I just decided that we should play something that's inexpensive, fun, and something new and different," Bertrand said.
Although they'd never played rugby before, Bertrand and his friends were eager to put a team together. Leitz called on the New Orleans rugby community for assistance in getting the Lake Area New Tech team started.
"The biggest thing I needed was some good experience in rugby and knowledge. Jesuit, Brother Martin and Audubon coaches and New Orleans Rugby have been huge in helping us get started and moving this forward," Leitz said.
The Deep South Rugby League consists of 10 teams across Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
Jerry Malina, head coach of the New Orleans Men's Rugby team and assistant coach for Brother Martin, was one of the coaches who helped develop the high school rugby program 10 years ago.
"We have been stuck on six (teams) for a long time. That's Shaw, Jesuit, Brother Martin, Rummel, Episcopal School of Acadiana and a team from Niceville, Fla.," Malina said. "It is really the New Orleans Rugby league, but we have incorporated teams that have nobody else to play."
New Orleans Rugby put the word out in the rugby community that Lake Area New Tech was putting together a team.
Adam Ducoing and Chance King Doyle signed up for the head coaching positions and are now tackling the challenges of the first-year team.
"It's got its challenges because none of them have ever played and most of them hadn't even actually seen the game before, but they've really taken to defense," Ducoing said.
Troy said the first order of business is for the team to get rid of its football mentality. Players are using material they have received from their coaches and from their own research.
"We've watched videos with the coaches, we read books and we print a lot of stuff up off the Internet," Bertrand said.
"The rules are where they're really struggling, but we have been giving them handouts on positions and how to hold your channels, and the more scrimmages we play the better we are going to get before the season," Leitz said.
The Leopards have faced other start-up challenges. Originally practicing on a 20-yard vacant lot next to the school, the team now has Pratt Park as its practice field.
The team has overcome financial hurdles, and after the scrimmage with Brother Martin, the team won't have any more issues with having enough players to make up a 22-player squad.
"After this scrimmage tonight, I've had about six other guys come up and ask what they need to do to play -- we are seeing that interest growing," Leitz said.
It's a sport that's easy to love, the players said. Everyone gets a chance to be involved, and the game is fast and aggressive.
"It is fast-paced, no stopping -- and I like the fact that we can strip the ball whenever we want as long as we are standing up," Bertrand said.
The Leopards are determined and focused on becoming one of the league's powerhouses.
"We practice more than anyone, we practice four days a week -- we have been working hard to catch up," Leitz said. "We have to get into the top four to get into the state playoffs and there is no doubt in my mind that we will get there."