, Newburyport, MA

April 20, 2013

Blazing the rugby trail

Newburyport natives start college program at Merrimack

By Jim Sullivan

---- — When he arrived at Merrimack College as a freshman three years ago, Newburyport High Class of 2010 graduate Jon Gurczak wasn’t quite sure how he wanted to fill his off hours. A veteran of the Clippers football, track and baseball programs, he knew he wanted to play something, but time was a factor as well.

“I was interested in trying out for football,” said Gurczak. “But it was kind of demanding with all of the practices. In rugby, you have only two practices a week and one game on the weekend. And with my major, it just kind of worked out.”

The electrical engineering major found a different kind of football, and has become a prop and flanker for the Warriors club rugby team. He also serves as the team’s president.

“The best way (rugby) was described to me is, it’s a cross-country race to a wrestling match,” said Gurczak, who also plays with Amesbury’s Greg Lingley. “It’s like Kill the Man with the Ball but a little bit more organized than that.”

A former offensive lineman for the Clippers, the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Gurczak wasn’t quite sure what to expect on the field when he started playing rugby.

“Before Merrimack, I had only watched a game or two on TV,” said Gurczak. “And when I got there, it was kind of overwhelming. It was completely different from what I thought it would be. In rugby, everyone gets to touch the ball. Instead of big guys blocking and not getting any glory, the big guys can get some glory too.”

It’s that inclusiveness, Gurczak says that he enjoys the most.

“We have guys of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds,” said Gurczak. “Soccer players try out, guys you’ve never even played any sports try out. There’s just kind of a loose, fun atmosphere. But it’s still competitive at the same time.”

As part of Division 2 in the Rugby Northeast Conference, the Warriors play against such schools as Holy Cross, Providence College, Bentley University, Saint Anselm College, Saint Michael’s College with their biggest rival being UMass Lowell. Newburyport resident and nine-year head coach for St. John’s Prep, Maurice Kauff, will be doing the same job for the Warriors this fall and has seen incredible growth in his sport.

“Rugby is where lacrosse was 10 to 15 years ago,” said Kauff. “When I started (at St. John’s Prep), there were maybe 15 teams we could get a game with in all of New England. Now there are upwards of 80 high school or U19 teams in New England.”

Although things may look brutal from a layman’s perspective, Gurczak says the game isn’t as frightening as it seems.

“Guys on both sides don’t really want to get hurt,” Gurczak said. “We know certain ways to tackle people, running into people that won’t get ourselves hurt. In football, a lot of people have helmets so they think they can lead with their head. In rugby we don’t have helmets, so we don’t think to go head-first into people. We try to use more of the shoulder.”

Currently training for his fall season, Gurczak sees himself playing long after his time at Merrimack is over.

“I thought it was going to be exactly like football but without pads,” Gurczak said. “But you have to think about it a lot differently than football. There’s no blocking or anything it’s just kind of a different mentality completely.”