The prep season is rapidly winding down with its usual array of crowning spring moments - baseball, softball, soccer, golf. Winning schools bask in communal pride while their peers barely take notice.
There is one team of high school boys competing for something the whole area can embrace. It's not in an official varsity sport, and it's not even a game many people pay much attention to or even understand.
The Georgia Rugby Union is holding its first state high school championship this year with the only four entries available, three of them from schools in the Atlanta Rugby League and the newcomers from Augusta. Lassiter High will play Oconee County at 1 p.m. Saturday in Watkinsville, Ga., before Augusta takes on Pope High at 2:30 p.m. The winners will meet in the championship next weekend.
"I believe this will be a varsity sport one day," said Augusta team founder and coach Alexi Servi, who hopes this under-19 club team will be the example for a new high school league he's trying to put together next spring with at least four teams.
The Augusta Rugby Club's U-19 team is made up of more than 30 kids from at least 11 different area high schools - many of whom never played rugby before. The team calls itself "Augusta," but it's truly a regional collaboration. The particpants hail from Lakeside, Westside, Evans, Harlem, Butler, Hephzibah, Richmond Academy, Aquinas, Augusta Christian, North Augusta, McCormick
"It's fun to get to know people from other schools, because I don't know many outside of Westside," said Ellis Zettler, a junior. "There's a lot of diversity."
Servi, a dual French/American citizen, grew up in Augusta where his father has a medical practice and coached the Medical College of Georgia's rugby club team. After attending Aquinas as a freshman, Servi finished high school in New York before returning to attend Augusta State and set about starting the under-19 team.
"It's had its ups and downs," Servi said.
The foundation of the team are second-generation rugby rats whose fathers and mothers played the sport.
"It's a heritage kind of thing," said Zettler's father, Hutch, a civilian employee at Fort Gordon who met his wife, Bonnie, playing on the MCG team years ago and has traveled to Europe playing the game and now enjoys watching his son. "We do pass it along and punch and beat on each other."
Through recruitment of friends, bulletin board fliers and word of mouth, this rag-tag group got together a few late afternoons a week at Richmond Academy and developed into a team.
Saturday will actually mark their first game as a full squad. When they traveled to Charlotte, N.C., for a recent tournament, Augusta had to borrow players to fill out their 15-man side.
"This is first time we'll get to play as the united Augusta rugby squad, so it will be a lot of fun," Ellis Zettler said.
The club has attracted kids from all over with various backgrounds. Zettler's extracurricular activities at Westside include playing trumpet in the band and being a Navy ROTC company commander. He tried football in middle school and decided it wasn't enough of a team sport for him. Rugby, however, captured his fancy as a 13-year-old.
"In rugby you have to use everybody to be successful," he said.
Servi's best players are two area football stars with no previous rugby experience - Cedrick Carwell, of Richmond Academy, and Ryan Adams, of North Augusta. Carwell just walked out of school one day and joined a practice.
"I saw them playing outside and thought I'd give it a shot," said Carwell, a senior cornerback for the Musketeers who plays center and wing for two different rugby teams. "I like it because it's a lot like football. I can't find anybody around here to play football and I've got nothing else to do, so I might as well play rugby. It's the next best thing."
Unless he chooses to go to college and play football somewhere, Carwell says he'll be able to sustain his competitive fix through rugby on club teams for as long as he can.
"It's a pretty brutal sport," said Carwell, whose best hit left himself writhing on the ground for a couple minutes but knocked his opponent out of the game.
Servi says rugby is much safer than football even without the protective pads because players can't be hit if they don't have the ball, and the man-on-man style of play doesn't lead to gang tackling or blindside collision contact. He broke his arm playing football in high school but has never suffered more than bruises and pulled muscles playing rugby.
"It's a contact sport, but it's more like 1950s football," said Servi, who hopes he can convince enough players and parents to get his league going next year.
For now, he hopes that his fledgling team can beat more seasoned and closely knit players from single-school programs to capture the first Georgia high school state rugby championship.
"We play pretty good," he said. "I'm expecting when we go play Pope we can be competitive."
When it's spring championship season, that's all you can ask for.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you'd like to know more about the Augusta Rugby Club's under-19 team, contact Alexi Servi (706) 951-5970 or email@example.com.
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