When I think of Rugby, I remember the film “Invictus” that galvanized South Africa in support of their Springboks or picture the New Zealand All-Blacks doing their Haka dance. But Coronado has its own Rugby star in Nico DiMatteo. DiMatteo is a rising senior at Coronado High who has been playing rugby for 10 years. He was the lone Coronadan to make the San Diego Mustangs U18 (under 18) squad of area high school aged all-stars. Earlier this month, the Mustangs were selected as one of four, elite California teams to play in the National U18 championship in Kansas City. The tournament hosted 16 teams from across the United States in a single elimination format.
The Mustangs arrived in Kansas City to 100-degree heat with 85% humidity. In that hostile environment, it was apparent that teams in the best condition would have an advantage and the Mustangs were ready. DiMatteo told me the Mustangs’ coaches, one an ex-professional rugby player from Ireland and another who played alongside DiMatteo’s father Jim DiMatteo in college, stressed conditioning in every practice.
The tournament draw had San Diego playing a team from Vienna, Virginia in the opening round. The Mustangs scored a try on their first possession to take a 5 – 0 lead.
Let me step back and explain Rugby 101. The game is a cross between soccer and American football, with 15 players on each side. A ‘try’ is like a touchdown when the offense crosses the opponents goal line, controlling the ball, touching it to the pitch to score 5 points. The ensuing conversion is a kick through the center goal posts worth 2 points.
Soon after that first score, the Mustangs’ best kicker was injured and could not continue due to a concussion. DiMatteo was asked to perform the kicking duties for the remainder of the tournament. San Diego was a little shell shocked by this and the Virginia team stormed back to take a 10 – 5 lead at halftime.
Knowing they may be eliminated in the next 40 minutes, the SoCal boys rallied. Their well experienced coaches drew up the strategy to exploit Vienna’s weaknesses. The Mustangs executed perfectly, scoring 19 unanswered points, winning the match 24 – 10.
The next day, San Diego took on a talented team from Raleigh, North Carolina. This squad had three experienced brothers from South Africa on the roster. In rugby, you may kick the ball forward like a football punt for positioning. Late in the first half DiMatteo took a kick return 50 meters for a score then converted the kick for a 7 – 5 Mustang lead at half. The boys continued their outstanding play in the second half while their opponents wilted in the heat. Several line breaks and outstanding defense made the final score 26 – 12 and San Diego was in the national championship game.
This day, San Diego would face a team from Tempe, Arizona and they were huge. Fifteen big, strong men averaging 250 pounds each. Side note: due to the pandemic, the rugby federation allowed 19-year-olds to compete on their U18 team this year.
The game was rough but evenly matched. A high-light play from the first half is when DiMatteo broke free for 20 meters on the left side only to be met by defenders. He deftly kicked the ball forward and sprinted past his larger opponents. The ball landed perfectly in the try zone and when a defender kicked it out of bounds, which is a penalty, the Mustangs were awarded the ball at the 5-meter mark. Soon after, they were able to pound in a try and convert the kick to take the lead, 12 – 7 at halftime.
Arizona tied the game early in the second half on a long break-away run. But as they had done the whole tournament, San Diego’s in game adjustments and superior conditioning allowed them to dominate strategically and win the championship match 22 – 17.
There is a Chinese proverb that goes “Life is like a game of chess, changing with each move.” The San Diego Mustangs may not have been the biggest or fastest athletes in the tournament, but they were adroitly flexible, and in the end, just the best team in the nation.