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Friday, Aug. 03, 2012

KC Blues Rugby team bounces back

Special to The Olathe News

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In 2000, life looked good for the Kansas City Blues rugby team. They had just finished second at nationals behind a veteran team, the club’s seventh trip to nationals since 1991

But a short time later, veterans started retiring, which usually opens the door for the next generation. The Blues, though, didn’t have that crop of young talent and gaps started forming in the lines.

The Blues would go more than a decade without returning to 7s nationals, unable to adequately fill the spots of proven veterans with up-and-coming young guns.

“I was actually part of that crew that when it disappeared, we could see it coming three years out,” said Scott Kram, now the Blues’ coach. “But we couldn’t do anything about it. We just didn’t have anybody coming in.”

The Blues 7s team is playing at nationals this weekend in San Francisco, having finally snapped the club’s drought. But that is simply the end game of a process that started in 2006, when members of the team realized they needed an infusion.

So Kram, vice president Pete Kowalski and others undertook the rebuilding process by starting small.

They turned to Conner Smith, now the team captain, who went to Rockhurst High and recruited a few teammates while at Kansas State.

They turned to Zack Zillner, who played at St. Thomas Aquinas before going to KU.

They turned to Kelly Mercer, whose dad starred for the Blues and who returned to the team after graduating from St. Louis University.

“Through that initial outreach,” Kowalski said, “the network really grew.”

There are a number of guys on the current roster who started in those formative years from 2006 to 2008. It’s during that time when the young Blues developed the close-knit group that, Kram and his players say, defines the team today.

“We weren’t very good or anything,” said Kevin Schwartze, who went to Rockhurst High and Rockhurst University. “We just started playing again. We’ve kind of been evolving and growing since then. It’s really been a homegrown team, which is really different than a lot of teams around the nation. They have foreign players or they bring guys in.”

Kowalski said: “We make sure that we’re continuing to build depth, and that’s really paying off and really been the difference is having a young group of players come in, learn the system and grow together.”

When Mercer returned to the Blues recently, he did so, in large part, because he found employment in Kansas City. But he also grew up with the Blues’ tradition, which helped.

Still, he wasn’t sure of where the Blues were going at that point. Then he showed up and saw how many recent college players were returning.

“My excitement jumped when I saw how many people were coming back,” he said.

At the heart of the Blues’ success is a concentrated effort to reach out to local high school and college programs to build what Kowalski and Kram call “pipelines.” But there’s also something else: serendipity.

“For the most part we all went off to college and did our own thing,” Mercer said. “It was more timing than anything else. We all came back at the right time.”

When Kram contemplates his team’s chances at nationals this year, he also mentions this: Yes, his team could be nervous this time around, “but it will be easier in years to come.”

For now, at least, the Blues are set for the future, in large part because of the pipelines they built after the club dropped out of sight.

“The youth movement was hard for me to see coming,” Kram said. “It just came. But now that it’s here, we’re taking steps to make sure that we never get that hole behind us again.”

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