Rivals and friends: Jesuit, Granite Bay compete as top seeds for national rugby title

The Jesuit and Granite Bay rugby teams both hope to make their mark at this weekend’s national tournament in Salt Lake City.
The Jesuit and Granite Bay rugby teams both hope to make their mark at this weekend’s national tournament in Salt Lake City.

The rivalry ends on the pitch.

Off it, the players on the Granite Bay Grizzlies and the Jesuit Marauders rugby squads are good friends. There is respect and admiration. They are often teammates on regional and national youth teams. For the first time, Granite Bay and Jesuit are No. 1 seeds in respective divisions in the Boys High School Rugby National Championships that take place in Salt Lake City.

The success for both programs is reflective of how far the sport has come locally. It used to be Jesuit was the dominant power and then there was everyone else. Now it’s Jesuit and Granite Bay – and everyone else.

The Grizzlies of Placer County will compete in the club division, which allows for players from other high schools to join the roster. Jesuit is in the single-school division. Every player on the roster attends the private-school Carmichael campus. Both play first-round matches Thursday in eight-team brackets. The title games are Saturday.

Jesuit is making its 19th appearance at the national championship, having won it eight times, so a No. 1 seed is nothing new. For the Grizzlies, the top seed is more validation that the program continues to rise.

“The No. 1 seed doesn’t affect us,” Grizzlies coach Jason Divine said. “We’re not big on distractions, and we look at (the No. 1 seed) as a tip of the hat to us because this is a very difficult tourney. There are no gimmes.”

Jesuit and Granite Bay play in the Northern California High School Premier League along with Bay Area teams Danville, Lamorinda and San Francisco Golden Gate. All are considered club teams except Jesuit. Lamorinda is the No. 3 seed and Danville is No. 5.

“Having the No. 1 seed gives us a lot of confidence,” said Granite Bay tri-captain Will Nogrady, a senior on his way to play rugby at Cal Poly next season. “It’s better to not see Danville or Lamorinda in the first round, because we know how tough they are from NorCal Premier League play.”

Rugby is not a sanctioned sport by the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports in the state. For now, there simply are not enough teams to reach that status. But rugby is popular across the country as a club and single-school sport.

Granite Bay won the club title in 2016, was second in the club’s 2015 debut, third in 2017 and fourth last season.

“It’s a very competitive tournament, so to finish in the top four every year in impressive,” Divine said.

Players come from a dozen high schools throughout the region, but mostly Placer and El Dorado counties, Divine said. Some of the high schools represented include Granite Bay, Rocklin, Del Oro, Lincoln, Whitney, Casa Roble and Vista del Lago.

“We’ve had lots of players move on to the U-19 and U-18 junior national teams, and five years ago we’d get 15 player or so invited,” Divine said. “But now we get around 30 guys invited, which really shows how our program has gotten better and better.”

Jesuit won this season’s Northern California High School Premier League title and was 12-0 entering Utah. Granite Bay was 6-1-1, with the lone loss coming in March to Jesuit, 31-22. Jesuit played more games because the Marauders matched up against teams visiting from Australia and New Zealand, as well as St. Louis University High School. Jesuit beat their Midwest opponents, 93-0.

Jesuit finished a disappointing third last year in the championships after winning it all in 2017. In the last six years, the Marauders have not finished lower than third nationally.

Jesuit is healthy and deep, coach John Shorey said.

“These games take a toll, and I look at it like a hockey game where you have to get maximum time from the most players,” Shorey said. “We’re really deep. Everyone thinks winning the title is the hardest part, but it’s not. Winning the first game is the toughest.”

That’s one reason the Marauders traveled to Salt Lake City on Tuesday, to get a full day on Wednesday to acclimate to the surroundings, get a light workout and relax. Salt Lake City is 4,200 feet above sea level, so the thinner air could affect how well the team plays that first game and recovers for games Friday and Saturday.

“We’ll get off the plane into a new environment and try to find a rhythm,” said Jesuit captain George Henry Miller, who plays hooker and flanker. “Some of us will be at the nationals for the first time. They don’t know it yet but the second day be the worst. It gets much harder.”

Jesuit is led by Laiatu Latu, a 6-foot-5, 265-pound who is a beast with the ball and a wrecking ball on defense. Latu is headed to the University of Washington on a football scholarship to play defensive end or outside linebacker. He is perhaps the most intensely recruited football player in Jesuit history.

The school opened in 1963. Latu is a three-year starter for Shorey, one of only three sophomores to have played in a national title game in Shorey’s 23 seasons as coach that includes 19 national championship appearances.

Latu rarely is taken down by a solo tackler. When he requires two or three players to grab on for a short ride, it allows players on either to be open for passes with clear lanes for tries. “(Latu) could graduate and go sign a professional rugby contract in England this summer,” Shorey said. “He’s that good.”

Granite Bay has seen plenty of Latu over the years, but last Saturday they saw him as just another rugger striving to reach the top, just like them. Jesuit hosted Granite Bay for an annual group practice before the national championships.

“We started the combo training sessions the weekend before nationals three years ago and it’s become a tradition now,” Divine said. “We beat each other up during the regular season, but the combo practice is a good chance to run against another team, but we have lighter contact and the tempo is controlled.”

But the competitive juices still flow. Jesuit is like the successful big brother and Granite plays the role of younger brother trying to steal some of the spotlight.

Brother may fight, but in the end, they’re both part of a closeknit Sacramento rugby family.

“It’s a rivalry, sure,” Shorey said. “When we play each other, we get after it. We’ve had the best of them for a while, but we’d do anything we can to help them win a title. We do it for our town.”