El Manado De Lobos: Elsie Allen High School Rugby

Elsie Allen's Rugby club is recognized as a top level high school rugby program. Alan Petty should be recognized as one of the top high school rugby coaches in the state if not the County. Coach Petty has made the Lobos Rugby Club (of Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa, California) into a regional and really a national power. The Lobos are consistently one of the top high school boys clubs in Nor Cal  and California (which currently boosts 13 clubs in the top 40 clubs in the nation according to the Goff Report this week).  Petty has been able to do this in a small town of 170,000 which has a second high school program. He has done this with very little funding from the school, and yet each year the Lobos are in the mix.

That red spot is where Santa Rosa is located.

That red spot is where Santa Rosa is located.

Now this isn’t a story about Coach Alan Petty, but we do think he should totally be the subject of his own full feature. The work he’s done for the past 20 years at Elsie Allen is outstanding. He’s also had a successful stint the past few years as the head coach for Santa Rosa Rugby Club as well. While we truly think Petty deserves more recognition from the rugby community this story is about the Lobos.

As we noted the Lobos currently are one of the top clubs in NorCal, in the state and the nation. We visited the Lobos on a Thursday practice where the 7-0 Lobos were going through their practice in preparation for their match versus the Napa Stormers the following night. The Lobos  went on to winning that game 22-0.

We got the pleasure to watch Coach Petty and his staff of Dan Bartholome (who has assisted Petty for 12 years), Mike Gadoua who is in his first year with the Lobos and two of his former alums (Eddie Castaneda and Leroy Lam) who became part of the coaching staff two years ago run a full training session. 

We spoke to Coach Lam and Coach Castaneda at length as the other coaches put the boys through their final run through before their game against Napa. Coaches Lam and Castaneda were able to offer some great perspectives as both former players (Lam was part of the Lobos until 2014 before going on and playing with UCSD and Castaneda played with the Lobos until 2010 before going to play with both the Santa Rosa Men’s club for a few seasons as well as the Santa Rosa Junior College program for two years).

Elsie Allen Lobos have produced some great club players, but also two professionals; Robert Meeson and Josh Inong (both played last season with the Sacramento Express of  PRO Rugby).

The Lobos had close to 30 kids out for training that day and coaches said they were missing a few of their captains (some had music concerts with the school, on a family trip out of state, and another had a family engagement). The Lobos have between 30-35 players depending on the day. Not all the players are students of Elsie Allen. Most the club is made up of players from two local high schools (including Elsie Allen), and one to two players from near by towns like Petaluma but it is primarily from one school. 

The coaches had the players focused on their up coming game verses Napa (and after that they have four more games remaining).  Coach Eddie Castaneda said they don’t look ahead and have to play their games, but as a coach the game he was really keeping on his radar will be the show down versus Peninsula Green. Peninsula Green at that time was ranked 11th in the Country! For Castaneda that match up and outcome will really give the Lobos “a clearer picture of the playoffs and a way to gauge where we will be when going to nationals”. Elsie Allen plays in the NorCal Silver Division and has also been accepted into the national competition which is an invitational.

Since we weren't going to be able to see the Lobos play the next day we asked about their style of play.  Coach Lam described their style as “wide open looking to stretch the field from side to side”. At the start of the season Lam, says the team was more “back-centric” with the play really being with the backs, but he told us “the forwards have really stepped up and have become the dominant force”.  Lam said the Lobos can stretch the field and use their speed but can also grind it out with the forwards in the middle of the field.

We are balanced” says Castaneda “to that point, we had a game this year where we went 50 meters with only the forwards just doing pick and goes. Going three to five meters at a time, but going the 50 meters to score a try”.  That type of play shows the strength of the club at this time.

Coach Lam shared that Coach Petty has told the players that the club is becoming forward dominant, which isn’t bad, but if the backs want more action it is on them to also step up their game and involvement too.  The Lobos can also play a tactical game, as Castaneda says their current fly-half (Jackson Petty) has the ability to put the ball into touch inside the oppositions 22 from most places on the field when they opt to play more of a tactical field position game.

Castaneda and Lam both shared that the Lobos are the smallest side in their league (in term of size). And that has historically been the case for Elsie Allen, as both said in their playing days the teams just didn’t have size. The Lobos combat that through a focused conditioning program. The team has a conditioning coach who volunteers and works with boys once a week doing interval training and using plyometrics. “The fitness work that we do now is much more intense and intentional than when I played” says Lam.

That is one of Petty’s strategies. If the team is fitter than any other team they can off-set what they lack in size. The focus of the Lobos is to be a second half team who can continue to work and outlast any opponent.

The fitness of the Lobos and their more open style allows them to create mismatches against opponents. It’s not unusual for a forward to make it out to the wings. While Castaneda works with the backs he took pride in saying “the issue of size isn’t as much of an issue, because of our fitness, our forwards are able to get to the breakdowns early and form the rucks, and so their work-rate neutralizes size”.

The Lobos have just accepted the fact that size will always be a challenge, and since they can’t control the size of the players they have, or will get each year they are better off putting their focus on matters they can control, like developing skills, enhancing fitness and preparation.

Now one of the things the Elsie Allen coaches do (partly because some are educators) is to focus on the mental aspects. The fitness is a mental strategy. Motivating and coaching up players is mental work. “It does nothing to yell at a kid who just doesn’t know” said Castaneda. What we saw was at times Coach Petty stopping practices and explaining things to the players. The coaches informed us that their approach is to teach, to have the players sometimes take a “mental break” to allow for instruction and process, to go over what they are trying to implement. We saw Coach Petty do this while we were at their training session (and we were far away from the action so it wasn’t him reacting to what we were talking about). Castaneda said “You just don’t let a player lag behind if they are new/young because they don’t know. We go over it and we try and teach it”. The coaches also noted that for many new players there is a difference in "rugby language" that many aren’t familiar. On a side note we’d like to point out that the current Lobos side has players who speak 10 different languages.

The mental part of the game and coaching players up is a key part of the Lobos success. The Lobos operate each week and game day with the mindset that they have 12 starting forwards and 10 starting backs. Setting everyone up with the mindset that they can play/start at any time and that they have to train and prepare accordingly.

The Lobos have a number of players that new to rugby, but the players in the area get early exposure to the game. There are a number of players who started in the 7th grade with the Lobos youth program. Some of the coaches like Lam and Castaneda have run camps and summer programs with the local parks and recreation department including things like touch to get kids interested in the game earlier.

Coach Alan Petty. Photo 2016 (Alvin Jornada/The Press Democrat) 

Coach Alan Petty. Photo 2016 (Alvin Jornada/The Press Democrat) 

Now, the Lobos at Elsie Allen High School are a club, not one of the school’s sports. They are not funded or supported through the school or district. Now having a coach who is an educator at the school has helped, but the club has to fund its efforts on its own. It has to share its field time after school with a local soccer club. It does get access some times to the Santa Rose RFC pitch (For Pete’s Sake Field) which is great. Also with coaches working on campus they are able to get access to weight room and also a class room for discussions, mental prep, and planning sessions. However, the work is on the club to fund its efforts.

The club is in the process of fundraising for its trip to Nationals. The club needs to raise funds to be able to fly its team to the tournament. “For some of our kids, this will be their first time on a plane, so aside from a rugby experience it gives a lot of kids other new life experiences” said Coach Petty. The Lobos are making a push to raise $30,000 through their Go Fund Me account specifically for nationals. If you’d like to support the Lobos go to https://www.gofundme.com/lobo-rugby-club-dixon-smith-fund . They’ve got two months, so if you can help shoot them a few bucks.

We asked Coach Petty about the season so far. The Lobos playing in NorCal pits them against other nationally ranked programs. We asked if that was an issue for the Lobos. “We don’t look at that. We look at what we have to do. We want to finish the season and deal with the NorCal playoffs and then Nationals” said Petty. As we noted geography plays a factor. Last year Penn Green won NorCal D1, Danville won State, and Granite Bay won nationals. Petty pointed out they all play in the same league together so while there is great competition there is parity as well.

“I felt we could have run last year with most teams, and this year on any given day we can play with anyone, the challenge will be over time. We don’t have the numbers as some of the other programs so playing top level programs back to back days and that could pose an issue” said Petty.  The Lobos draw players from two schools in a city of 175,000. They also have another high school in town with a club so two clubs are vying players our of the same limited pool .  Some of their competition draws from as many a five schools or just more populated areas in the Bay. Petty has confidence in his team and their ability to play. He also believes his team and their competition are some of the best in the nation (citing the three teams NorCal who won NorCal, State, and Nationals) regardless of location of their pool of players. Nationals will be big for the Lobos as they’ll be able to face off against other top level sides that they don’t face regularly. Having played the top clubs during the season will prepare them for what they’ll face at Nationals. “If you took just the top eight clubs in the USA with half from the west and the other the east, tell me four wouldn’t be NorCal, or at least California sides!” explained Petty.

So what are the key's to the Lobos' success? Some of it is the commitment of the coaches and players. It’s getting guys to play early on and develop over the years. It is a strong rugby culture in the area (with likes of Santa Rosa RFC, Santa Rosa JC, and the youth).  And some of it is the philosophy and/or mantra that the Lobos operate under which is 1). Faith and Family. 2) School and 3) Rugby. Those are their focal points and in that order. “That is what we were taught and what we teach and it’s a core to a lot of what we do” said Castaneda. Lam went on to note “We know how the guys are doing in school, where they need a push, where they need some additional support”.

Coach Petty shared that he’s had a number of players who remain involved or engaged with the program long after they are one. The Lobos use rugby as a game but also a way to instill the values of rugby which transcend the game. “I have a kid who played for us and is now in special ops, and he had recently come back and visited. He said he learned everything he needed for special ops and his work in the Santa Rosa mud pit (except for the weapons)” shared Petty. He then pointed out the area of the school where some of the training is done and is know as the "mud pit". Rugby as we all know can prepare someone for so many things in life.

Lobos Center Tevita "TJ" Salato. Photo March 2017 (The Rugby Republic). 

Lobos Center Tevita "TJ" Salato. Photo March 2017 (The Rugby Republic). 

To understand the Lobos better we spoke with some players. We asked Tevita "TJ" Salato a Lobos player about his experience with the club. TJ has been playing rugby since he was six years old. He was identified by the coaches as one of their top players and likely to be one of the Lobos’ captains next season (his senior year).  He has been a three year starter. He admitted he didn’t always take the game seriously. He began playing with the Lobos in the 7th grade but it wasn’t until the 9th grade that he really committed himself to the game.

TJ’s size and athleticism are impressive, what was also impressive was the humbleness with which TJ responded to questions. For TJ his goals were simple and short term. Win the next night. Win out in NorCal and then win Nationals. “That’s really the biggest goal I have is to win nationals” said TJ.

Since TJ has been with the Lobos for a few years now we asked him what was the best part of playing rugby with the Lobos and he simply said “the bonds with the guys”. For TJ the game is fun, playing is fun, but the part that has resonated with him is the friendship and relationships that have come out of rugby.

We spoke the Lobos’ Senior Prop Josh Kauvesi who also had the same perspective as to why he played. Now Josh is a six year player with the Lobos program and is wrapping up his high school career. Josh’s take on the game and goals for the season mirrored TJ’s. For him rugby has helped him become fitter over the past few years and to really learn the game, but it’s the relationships that stand out for him. “…I mean meeting all these new people, people from different backgrounds and becoming friends is the best part. There are guys I met when I was a 7th grader who were juniors and seniors and I still am friends with them and keep in contact because of rugby”.

After speaking with coaches and players there were two themes that were coursing through each conversation. One was the bonds and relationships that everyone involved with the Elsie Allen Lobos has formed with each other. Each player and coach knows the next guy, and the guys before them and the guys just starting out. That has to be one of the keys to their success is that they’ve truly fostered a really rugby culture! The second common theme for all was Nationals. The Lobos have been invited to the national tournament and while they still have a season left to play they are very much determined to win Nationals.  Each training session, each game, is a step toward that prize.

We hope we’ve been able to take you inside one of the top high school rugby programs in the county (nestled away in Santa Rosa), but more so we hope we’ve been able to show why this program is the program that it is.  Why it is successful. Why it wins and why it produces so many players who continue with the game after their school days.

We want to thank Coach Petty, his staff and players for their time and allowing us to see how the Lobos operate. While we do try to be impartial, you can’t help but want to see the Lobos have success this season and hopefully at nationals. Don’t forget to go and support the Lobos run at nationals through thier fundraising as well. https://www.gofundme.com/lobo-rugby-club-dixon-smith-fund .