The St. Augustine Prep rugby team was winless in 2013.
Four years later, the Hermits are headed to the playoffs hoping to make their third consecutive appearance in the state final.
They lost the previous two championship games to state powerhouse Delbarton.
The first step toward a title for the second-seeded Hermits will come at 1 p.m. Saturday, when they host third-seed Christian Brothers Academy in a semifinal game.
“We graduated 22 seniors last year, so we fielded an almost entirely new team this season,” Hermits coach Brendon Towell said, “but we didn’t lower our expectations as a coaching staff. I scheduled the hardest games I could find for the preseason because I wanted our team to be exposed to playoff-level rugby right off the bat.
“In fact, we opened our regular season against Delbarton. We lost on a penalty by three points. I didn’t consider that a loss because we really competed with the state champions, even as a fairly new team.”
Towell is in his first season at the helm after five years as an assistant coach. When the program began in 2009, the Hermits couldn’t win a game and struggled to even score a try — the equivalent of a touchdown in football. By 2012, the team went .500.
Now, they are 4-2, having earned the second seed in the five-team Single School, or Gold, Division. The division also includes Hudson Catholic and St. Peter’s Prep.
“When the program began, it was hard to get kids to come out because most didn’t know much about the game,” Towell said. “The toughest thing is making athletes, their other coaches and even their parents realize that rugby won’t interfere with their schedule and that we will work with anyone,” Towell said.
The Prep coaches do not cut out any athlete who tries out for the team. Instead, they create an A team and a B team, much like a varsity and junior varsity.
“There’s a spot for anyone on our team. Whether they are a multi-sport student or they never played a high school game, we can find a spot for them,” Towell said. “I’m always recruiting any student that I think may at least consider playing. It’s just a matter of getting them excited to try something new, and once they’re on the field, they never want to come off.”