by Todd Habiger
OVERLAND PARK — As the St. Thomas Aquinas High School rugby team here makes a push for its 12th state championship in the next few weeks, three players can look back on their experience last summer as the building blocks for this season.
In the summer of 2018, senior Brooks Tate played for Team USA’s under 17 team in Ireland, while freshmen Nicholas Jurczak and Brock Kluempers toured with Team USA’s under 15 team in Canada.
Aquinas head rugby coach Tim Kluempers said the boys’ summer experience has showed on the field this season.
“They are more confident in their game,” he said. “They played at a higher level [internationally], so most of the games feel a little slower, which allows them to react quicker than most players.”
Kluempers said that in addition to elevating their own gameplay, the boys’ experience has helped them elevate their teammates also.
“They know how to play well with others and make their teammates succeed instead of them always trying to make things happen,” he said.
As for the boys themselves, they loved the opportunity to compete with some of the best players in the world.
“My experience was amazing,” said Brock. “Everyone was committed to winning. Everyone knew their craft and how to use it.”
The boys said the experience was eye-opening in terms of skill level and pace of play.
“I never knew the ball could travel that fast,” said Nicholas. “Everyone knows how to use their skills. [International play] is more tactical.”
“Most teams here will just crash the ball,” he continued. “In higher levels, it’s skills and tactics. You have to move the ball and figure out what the defense does.”
“It was pretty tough,” he said. “This was a different skill level. But playing for the U.S. team, everyone was better. It made me work hard to keep up.”
Brock said that, although the practices were tough, by the end of the tour, he could see the improvement in his game.
“I was able to improve my skills as far as running, tacking, passing and just seeing the field,” he said.
Nicholas likewise said that the experience was worth it.
“I learned that I was able to compete at the highest levels,” he said. “I just have to put in the work.”
Although the order of the day was competition, the three boys said that the camaraderie between competing teams after the games was something special.
After each game, the opponents would get together for a meal to share game as well as life experiences.
“It was interesting to see how people lived differently,” said Brooks. “They ate different food. They do different things. Each team we played was from a different province. Some teams were made up of farm kids. Others were city kids.”
Kluempers describes each of his players as hard workers with a deep knowledge of the game.
Kluempers says Brooks is the strong, silent type, but he’s also one of the leaders on the field.
“Brooks doesn’t talk much, but he’s a very loyal teammate that makes sure his teammates are taken care of,” Kluempers said. “He’s a leader by his actions. He’s an intelligent kid that just loves to go out and play.
Kluempers, in turn, said Nicholas is a quarterback type who always knows where everyone is supposed to be and what their role is.
“He’s a good tackler. Very athletic. Very fast. He’s a thinker and a good passer,” Kluempers said. “[Nicholas] makes a lot of decisions on the fly and directs players around to get them in the right position.”
As for his son Brock, Kluempers says he’s a cerebral player with great knowledge of the game.
“Brock has been playing and been around rugby his whole life and he just loves the game. He’s got really good skills and knows the game well. When things are going crazy on the field, he helps get the boys organized,” Kluempers said.
Aquinas will challenge for the Kansas state rugby championship on May 11 in Lawrence and then will compete in nationals in Salt Lake City May 17-19.