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Local high school athletes excel in unlikely sport

By Nathan Percy La Habra Journal Over the past weekend, high school athletes met at Ladera Vista Junior High School in Fullerton to take part in a sport that isn’t offered on high school campuses, but one that is gaining popularity in rapid fashion.

Sonora Tanner Quinto breaks away for the Fullerton Lions Rugby Club at the annual Fullerton tournament last Saturday.
Sonora Tanner Quinto breaks away for the Fullerton Lions Rugby Club at the annual Fullerton tournament last Saturday.

The sport is rugby and students from all three La Habra area high schools have been making the short trip to participate as part of the Fullerton Lions Rugby Club, which hosts the Fullerton Rugby High School International Invitational each spring.

The tournament, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this past weekend, consists mostly of California teams, but also attracted out-of-state teams as well as one from Canada. “It’s the fastest growing sport in America right now, mostly because it’s going to be in the 2016 Olympics,” said Phillip Marquez, head coach of the Lions U18 team.

“Not everyone knows about the sport, people are starting to jump on it right now. As far as Fullerton, we’re one of the oldest youth groups throughout the nation, this is our twelfth year and we’re already putting boys on the US team and in college.”

The Fullerton Lions Club formed 12 years ago and offers both boys and girls teams, with four different age groups for boys and currently two for girls. In earlier years, the Lions have hosted local high school football standouts, such as former La Habra running back Josh Quezada and former Whittier Christian running back Johnathan Marquez, among others.

This year, eight high school athletes from both La Habra and Sonora High Schools are participating in the Fullerton Lions rugby teams, and word continues to spread about the sport on both campuses. La Habra seniors Tyler Dean and Andy Mata, along with juniors Richard Parker, James Pirtle, Lucas Thomas and Sonora junior Antonio Apodaca are all members of the Lions’ U18 team.

La Habra's Lucas Thomas, Tyler Dean, Richard Parker, James Pirtle, Andy Mata and Sonora's Andy Apodaca Jr. pose before their next match at the Lions Tournament Saturday afternoon in Fullerton.
La Habra’s Lucas Thomas, Tyler Dean, Richard Parker, James Pirtle, Andy Mata and Sonora’s Andy Apodaca Jr. pose before their next match at the Lions Tournament Saturday afternoon in Fullerton.

For most of the boys, rugby started as an alternative to football, but all have ended up preferring the sport because of its style of play.

“I loved football, but rugby’s just a different sport, it’s so much more fun,” Dean said. “Football is a team sport, but they have a star quarterback or star receiver. With rugby, you need an entire core, everyone gets the ball, even the big guys. I love the selflessness.”

But the second aspect that separates rugby from most other sports, according to all the athletes, is the heightened sense of camaraderie shared between teammates and opposing players alike.

“Teams will even host meals for their opponents after matches, the tradition of it is great,” Dean said.

While some are starting to learn about the sport as they have been playing their first couple of seasons, others were introduced during their playing days in La Habra Pop Warner football.

“One of my Pop Warner coaches, Joseph Quezada, he played for Fullerton and told me to check out a game,” said Parker, who has played in the tournament for two years now. “I came down to check out a game and I fell in love with it. I love the physicality and the aggressiveness. It’s just nonstop action.”

Such bonds become essential during the course of a grueling four-month season in which games are played nearly every Saturday. This year’s schedule included two tournaments. The team took second place in the Cup Championship match at this year’s Fullerton Tournament. In addition, the boys try to spread word of the sport on campus by word-of-mouth or using social media.

“I’ll post pictures on Instagram or Facebook every now and then,” said Apodaca, who found out about rugby from his older brother. “They’re just ways to advertise the team, I’m always talking to guys and telling them they should check it out.”

However, this sport isn’t restricted to just boys, a pair of Sonora girls have found their athletic calling in rugby as well, participating for the Lady Lions’ U18 team.

Sonora Senior Johanna Pasutin and junior Tanner Quinto smile after a Fullerton Lions Rugby Club victory at the Fullerton tournament Saturday at Ladera Vista Junior High School in Fullerton.
Sonora Senior Johanna Pasutin and junior Tanner Quinto smile after a Fullerton Lions Rugby Club victory at the Fullerton tournament Saturday at Ladera Vista Junior High School in Fullerton.

Sonora senior Johanna Pasutin, in her fourth year and captain of the Lions, and junior Tanner Quinto, joining for her first season, are currently playing to defend a national championship that the Lady Lions won last year.

For both Pasutin and Quinto, the love of the sport comes from similar aspects. “One of my soccer teammates told me about rugby and I fell in love with it,” said Pasutin, who celebrated her 18th birthday on the first day of the tournament.

“Usually I’m really aggressive and I was always looking for something since my dad didn’t want me playing football. I love the camaraderie, after games we go out and eat with teammates and interact with other teams, I love that aspect of it.”

The girls’ team took first in this year’s tournament’s bowl match. While rugby has gained its footing at the youth level, the opportunities to play at the next level are growing.

Collegiate teams have been formed locally at both Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton College. In addition, more colleges and universities are offering scholarships in the form of rugby packages as opportunities for kids to continue their education and play the sport they love.

“I would like to continue and play in college, but right now it’s just step-by-step, I just want to keep improving,” Mata said.

“It opens so many doors for colleges, some of these kids get an ultimatum to either play football or rugby and some of them are starting to drop football,” Marquez added. “We have kids in local colleges and Division 1 colleges playing rugby.”

In addition, at the end of the regular season, players have a chance to further their skills on an All-Star team, the Orange County Griffins.

The opportunity to keep playing is a goal for Pasutin, who has played for the Griffins for the last three years. Quinto is hoping to make the team in her first season with the Lions.

“A lot of colleges are opening their minds to women’s rugby as well, right now most just offer men’s rugby,” Pasutin said. “But we still have a chance to play for the all-star team, the Griffins, this will be my fourth year and Tanner should make the team too. It’s definitely a goal to make that team.”

The Lions continue their season though April, with playoffs starting in May. While Marquez has been in talks to start a high school team, he continues to work and develop his current club.

The Fullerton Lions are well established in the youth rugby world and are always looking to expand the sport of rugby in Southern California.

“It’s a game where you just need your mouthpiece and your cleats, which are called your boots, you just carry those around and if you have enough people, you can start a game,” Marquez said. “These kids are making friends with our competitors on the field. That’s the difference with this sport.”

Started in 1995, the La Habra Journal is an independent community news source serving the cities of La Habra and La Habra Heights.