Denver East High Rugby Angels in the Hierarchy of State (again!)
When one considers successful 15-a-side rugby programs in the State of Colorado, there’s a bunch: there’s the 1990 Barbarians, 1997-2000 Aspen Gents and 2011 Glendale Raptors whose XVs topped the nation in Men’s Division 1; D1 Air Force Men and Women in a number of years; and a smattering of Division 2 awards. But no program in the state has been as consistent within their domain as Denver East High Rugby Angels. Since they began play in 1988 they’ve had two head coaches and though they didn’t title this year, East was a finalist in the championship match versus perennial nemesis, Regis Rugby Raiders.
“East High School’s first competitive year was Spring, 1988. We won the Division II title,” states club founder, Paul Hoskins who is called, “Senior.” Of the early years, Senior explains: “My primary focus was coaching and teaching basic rugby roles, responsibilities and tactics,” on the pitch and, “to use rugby as a metaphor for dealing with life’s challenges,” he offers simply, “be prepared and bring your best self to the challenge.”
Hoskins’ original premise for East rugby life has been carried on for the past three decades and is evident today in the form of a highly efficient continuum that has been overseen by head coach, and for all intents and purposes, Denver East Director of Rugby, Bill Baer.
Coach Baer, self-proclaims, “I am not a rugby coach, but I can organize.” But organizational skills are one of the foremost components of the coaching toolkit, so Bill, yes you are. And Baer presides over a smoothly efficient program that has been a finalist at State for 23 of the 30 years of his tenure, winning eight first division championships.
The East talisman coached at Thomas Jefferson before coming to East in 1993 and played for Queen City Rugby Football Club, “for many years.” He has taken the pitch with Colorado Senior Olde Boys, and as one of their number, has attended, “many Golden Oldies Festivals.”
Regards his theory of the game, Baer says, “I like a quick-paced, open style of play that suits the East HS players who’re usually not big, but pretty fast.” That translates to: early to the breakdown making for success of the counter-ruck in the forwards and confounding elusivity in the three-quarters.
The greatest element of the Angels longevity and success Baer notes, “is simply due to a lot of hard work by many coaches and parents.” And parental involvement and support, Baer feels, is the fulcrum upon which the program balances. “We have worked to achieve great parent support, which has been seamlessly coordinated by parent volunteer, Patti Wells. We have many parents doing many tasks. And the parents enjoy socializing together. We have always supported 8th graders (when 14 years old ) and freshmen playing for us. This allows us to try to build a program with younger players coming up, rather than building a team for that year. In 2002 I started the 8th grade/ fresh/ soph. festivals so Rugby CO. could offer chances for younger players to play in their age group. It has been a huge success in the development of all the younger players in Rugby Colorado. We have great continuity in the coaching staff. We have a large staff and many of our coaches I coached when they played for East Rugby. They went on and played in college and returned to Denver and joined our staff. This provides continuity for East as well as allows for new ideas. Paul Hoskins Sr. is the founder of East HS Rugby and a great friend. He is a complete gentleman and I have learned a lot from him. I always told the parents – ‘I am pretty sure Paul Senior can make your son a better rugby player but I 100% guarantee Senior will make your son a better man.” That is what it is all about, facilitating, nurturing and influencing individuals to become better expressions of themselves.
East Rugby receives some help from the high school administration, and Baer acknowledges that, “We are supported by East HS as best they can. With many sports and only one field it is challenging. None of our coaches teach at East, but we have a great school sponsor, Michelle Rich (East Girls Rugby coach), who helps coordinate with the school.”
Perseverance and its Reward
In a career of high points, Baer reminisces a prominent: “I have a memory of Paul Sr and I taking 16 boys to Salt Lake City in 1997 to play the U.S. national champions, Highland Rugby (SLC). We got beat soundly, but we never gave up and we saw how a top program operates. We went on to win our 1st Colorado State Championship that year, went on to Nationals and placed 8th. This was a turning point in our program.”
Bill reckons the difference between players in the nineties and players these days is that, “For years I would ask if any of the new players had ever played rugby before. None had. I asked if any of the new players had ever seen a rugby game almost none had. Now with new players coming in, 90% have played in TRY and come in with some ball skills and knowledge of the game.”
East High Rugby Community
Rugby is always a sport that will attract large groups of people. What those people do together over the course of time is the result of their efforts as a communal assembly. East is an exemplary.
Joshua Knight is a parent of a seasoned player who was searching for a club his son might play for after finishing his TRY League career at Glendale. Knight explains his manner of connection: “I did a search online to see what high school programs were available in the metro area for kids who would be ‘timing’ out of his Glendale Try League. I reached out to East through their website, Bill Baer invited me up to watch his teams play 7s in Fort Collins and Boulder. I was impressed with how he would ask some of his captains to come over and talk to me and also to my son about coming to play for East. The one thing Bill did say to me was, ‘I don’t know if I will make your son a better rugby player, but I will make him a better man”.
“East Rugby means family. Some of my son’s best friends are his teammates that go to different high schools. We have also become very close with other parents that are a part of the program, or have just finished up with their sons graduating from the program. Our relationships with those families will continue. Bill has built something very special here that will continue even after he coaches his last game. It is now multi-generational from the volunteering aspect. And we even have parents that still help out when their sons have already graduated from East Rugby. You don’t get that very often so I think this is a real phenomenon. I feel like we hit the lottery when it came to our son and how much his teammates mean to him, how much he loves playing for the coaches here at East, and we as parents also feel like we’ve hit the lottery from a standpoint of meeting lifelong friends.”
East Rugby has a spring trip every year and this year Knight, his wife and son were among the 55 players and 65 adults who made the tour to Oklahoma. “My wife and I went and it was excellent. We also went to the Kansas City tour the prior year, as my son was an eighth grader. This last one, my wife volunteered as the person that sets up the hotel, banquets and also the parents night which was fabulous (parents and coaches only) while Bill and Barbara (Baer) took all of the boys out bowling. We made some incredible connections with other parents and (it) was an amazing experience!”
Continuity and Cohesion
Part of the program’s success has been its ability to maintain ties with its alumni. Steve Gore is Director of Coaching at East. He played high school rugby as a breakaway Angel, though he graduated George Washington in 2001 – “While the majority of our players go to East, we’ve always welcomed kids from other schools. Over the years we’ve had many great players and even captains that attended other schools.”
Gore matriculated at Duke where he earned a degree in electrical and computer engineering, playing rugby all four years and becoming club president his senior year. He toured with East Rugby this season to Oklahoma City and declares, “I love to see the players step up on the second day of matches and it is always surprising who stands out. We have a goals and achievements banquet where every player gets up and speaks in front of their teammates, coaches, and often their parents. It is impressive to see each player’s growth and maturity from year to year.”
Gore summarizes his experience with the East community cogently, “It is hard to sum up what East Rugby means to me. It has been a direct part of my life for almost 20 years. I think it is a program where young men, and also coaches and parents, can see the values of hard work, commitment, preparedness, and organization. We’re not for everyone, but for the people that choose to embrace (our community), there is always growth off the field and very often success on the field.
Zach Levek is one of eleven East Rugby coaches, eight who played as Angels. He graduated in 2007 and is typical of the instructional cadre there. “During the spring 2023 season I primarily coached the A-side backs, but helped all over. Last season, I primarily coached the forwards.” He went on from East to graduate Syracuse University in 2011 with degrees in Public Affairs and Political Science. A solid pack player, he is involved nowadays because, “Rugby has been incredibly important to me and by coaching at East, I have the chance to give back to my community and help spread the game I love. At East, the sport helped me find ‘my people’ and the guys I shared the pitch with continue to be some of my best friends. When I went away to college, I didn’t know anyone in Upstate NY, and rugby provided me with an immediate network from the first week I stepped onto campus. Similar to my teammates from East, my teammates from Syracuse remain some of my closest friends. After college, I moved to NYC and once again through rugby I got plugged into an incredible network of people. Since NYC is such a large and diverse city, I had teammates from literally across the world (England, France, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, South Africa, Georgia, Argentina, Chile, Cameroon, to name a few). This experience showed me how rugby is a global network.”
To Levek, East Rugby means community and family, “We do our best to intentionally create an environment where everyone is welcome, no matter your background or socioeconomic status. For example, we consistently have a developmental side (B-Side) and go out of our way to make sure our players are getting game time. This often means they are playing other teams A-Sides. Similarly, we have a strong team of 8/9/10th graders that we also make sure get playing time through designated tournaments. These 8/9/10 festivals were started by Bill to make sure the youngest players across the state had opportunities to play meaningful rugby games.”
East has a tradition of sponsoring all-comers and Levek informs, “We also minimize any barriers to playing rugby. If a family is unable to afford equipment (cleats, mouthguard, etc.) we help provide it. In addition, we provided scholarships every year to help players with their annual dues as well as the cost of going on our annual out-of-state tour. We never want money to be a barrier to accessing sport. This is all made possible by East Rugby’s incredible support network.”
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
The East Rugby organization is ever searching for ways to improve in all aspects of being. It is admirable that the organization not only promotes an impressive and respectful field presence, it is also on the cutting edge of comprehensive community involvement. “We are always looking for ways to get better (on and off the pitch) and this season, we started doing weekly culture sessions. These sessions were led by an East Rugby Alumni who is a certified DEI trainer and (they) were a chance for us to help our student-athletes build their cultural intelligence. Our coaches also participated in sessions. We want our players and coaches to be open to learning new concepts and ideas. A tenet we borrowed from the New Zealand All Blacks is ‘better people make better All Blacks’ and we think by providing off the field learning opportunities for our players, we can continue to be successful on the pitch and help show the community the benefits of being a member of East HS Rugby,” Levek adds.
It is not surprising then, that Denver East Rugby are always on top of their game, whether on the pitch or off, they are ever on the side of the Angels.
Link Wilfley: Denver East, ’98; Oregon State, Denver Barbarians, USA Eagles
John Falkenberg Jr: Denver East, ’02; University of Wyoming captain and All-American; East High Angels coach
Sam Golla: Denver East ’17; University of California-Berkeley; #1 pick in Major League Rugby draft; current Dallas Jackal
John Wilson: Denver East ’22; captained ’21 and ’22 State Championship XVs; currently at St. Mary’s
Quaid Hunt: Denver East ’22; co-captain ’22; State Rugby Champion, ’21, ’22; rugby scholarship – Central Washington University
By: Bernie Decker, writing rugby topical pieces and match reports since the late ‘70s; today as This Is Colorado Rugby