Rugby came natural to Desert Vista freshman Ethan Appelt.
He was convinced to give the sport a try nearly two years ago in September 2017. After just a few practices with the Tempe Rugby Club U16 team, he was hooked.
“I picked it up pretty easily,” said Appelt, who plans to join the Desert Vista football program in the fall. “It’s a pretty simple game, actually. In words it’s difficult to understand but when you actually go out there and play it makes a lot more sense. It’s more of just a matter of getting out there and doing it.
“You can’t really explain it, you have to go out and experience it to really understand.”
Appelt’s relationship with his teammates evolved into friendship off the field. The bond he shared with them in his first season grew even stronger in his second when fellow Desert Vista freshman Jack Saron and Thomas Allen also joined the team.
Already friends, the trio’s chemistry worked in the team’s favor as they all played forward and were next to one another in scrums.
“It’s not like I’m just hanging out with a bunch of people I barely know,” Appelt said. “I have friends there I can lean with and trust. It makes it a lot more fun.”
The three helped lead the U16 team to an undefeated record and a state championship. The team beat the Red Mountain Club, 87-5, on April 13 to capture the title.
“It was amazing,” Allen said. “It’s the first championship I ever won in any sports, so it was nice. We were all really excited.”
Allen first learned about rugby last year while in California with his family. He and his father, Randy, saw a match being played on TV and it immediately caught the younger Allen’s attention.
They began researching clubs and found the one in Tempe. After just two practices, Allen was determined to play. It also passed Brazilian jiu-jitsu as his favorite sport.
“I started jiu-jitsu for self-defense and I continued to do it because I didn’t have any other sports going on,” Allen said. “But I love playing rugby.”
The U16 team was dominant all season long, outscoring opponents 248-17 throughout the season.
The club jumped at the opportunity to face a nationally ranked team from San Clemente, Calif. early in the season. It was after Tempe emerged victorious that they realized just how talented they truly were.
“It was a hard-fought game and it was tough, but it was fun,” Saron said. “They knew how to tackle and play the game really well. We had an advantage with our size and speed so it felt good to be able to beat them.”
Saron began playing Rugby two years ago, following in the footsteps of his father, Brent, who played rugby at Iowa State University. He spent his first season with an Ahwatukee-based club but was unable to play in all of the matches due to a scheduling conflict with wrestling.
This year, however, there was no overlap and he was able to play the full season.
Saron picked up the game fairly easily, and quickly realized how different it was from football, which he also plays at Desert Vista. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, Saron found a home on the offensive line for the Thunder’s freshman team. But instead of just blocking like he does in football, his role expands in rugby.
“You’re guaranteed to touch the ball at least once in rugby, and it’s a lot of fun,” Saron said. “We had so much talent on our team and everybody got the ball. I think that’s why we were so successful.”
All three boys say they will continue to play rugby for the foreseeable future, even while participating in other sports or club activities. The game has truly captivated each one of them, a feeling their coach, Omar Habbal, is familiar with.
Habbal grew up in France and began paying rugby when he was 10 years old. He began coaching at 35. This past season was his first with the U16 team, but the chemistry he and the players shared is something found in teams that have been together for several years.
Being able to hoist the trophy with his players was special for Habbal, but it wasn’t the most gratifying moment of that day. That came after the initial celebration.
“When you see those kids and their families, you look into their eyes and see how proud they are,” Habbal said. “That’s a wonderful feeling. I don’t have very many words for it.”