As the last of winter’s snows begin to leave the local playing fields, so the thoughts of Merritt Secondary School athletes turn to rugby — a sport with a storied history in the Nicola Valley.

The Panther boys rugby program will likely see both junior (Grades 8 to 10) and senior (Grade 11 and 12) teams, coached by teacher JP Lancaster and MSS alumni Nathan Brigden and Ryan Reid.

“On paper, our numbers look quite good right now,” said Lancaster on Monday of this week. “We, the coaches, put on quite a recruiting push, and many of our returning players sought out their peers and encouraged them to come out.”

Lancaster even turned to Merritt Centennials head coach Luke Pierce, himself a former MSS rugby player, for assistance in bringing students on board this season.

“We had Luke talk to the players on both the bantam and midget hockey teams,” Lancaster explained. “[Luke] spoke about how rugby helped his own hockey career in terms of co-ordination, hand-eye skills, quick decision-making, and especially communication.

“Luke played rugby all the way through high school,” added Lancaster. “He’s pretty passionate about kids playing multiple sports and the crossover value of one sport to another.”

Staying with the strong hockey-rugby connection, Lancaster pointed to two recent MSS players who have benefitted greatly from their participation in both sports.

Eric Schmidt, 20, has just finished his second junior B hockey season with the Princeton Posse after starring on the ice with the local midget rep team and on the field with Merritt Secondary’s rugby fifteens. He continues to play rugby in the off-season with the local Merritt Barbarians men’s squad.

Nolan Prowal, 17, was probably the Panthers’ most outstanding senior rugby player last year. The Grade 12 student has just finished playing midget rep hockey this year and has been picked up by the Columbia Valley Rockies of the KIJHL for the tail end of their Junior B season.

Lancaster is hoping that Prowal will be back at MSS in time for the start of this year’s rugby campaign.

The list of other athletes who have benefited from the MSS rugby program and gone on to great things is a mile long.

Garth Cooke represented Canada in the sport, while Max Heppner has represented his province on several occasions, and also played at a high club level in New Zealand, Great Britain, South Africa and the U.S.

April 17 2013 036_webHeppner’s most recent rugby travels took him to Chicago, and a return to New Zealand is in the works.

Closer to home, Panther alumni Cameron Graham currently plays for the UBC Thunderbirds while Sam Carroll toils for the UBCO Heat.

When they’re in town, alumni like Graham, Carroll, Heppner, Zach Wright, Mark Price and Riley Clark (to name a few) can all be found helping out at MSS practices and even coaching teams.

“We really try to connect our young players with former members of the team. It helps our current group appreciate that they are part of something special that has a rich tradition at the school.

“You can be big or small, fast or slow — there’s a place for you on the field,” said Lancaster. “The discipline, the respect, the work ethic are all huge benefits from the sport.

“At the end of the day, if we’re producing fine young men who show commitment [to] and a level of respect for what they’re doing, I’m fine with that.”

Every bit as rich in tradition and history is the girls’ rugby program at MSS, which is headed up this year by Molly Brigden and fellow teachers Heidi Andersen, Jenny Stirling and Erica Martindale.

Both Stirling and Martindale (née Huber) starred for Merritt Secondary during their own rugby playing days.

MSS girls rugby teams have made the provincial tournament on numerous occasions (placing as high as second) and also done far-ranging tours to the likes of France and Fiji.

The distinguished alumni of Panther girls rugby include Haley Glendinning and Lindsay Reynoldson (currently playing for UBC), along with Emily Young, Kalea Nokleby and Paige Norgaard (all of whom played for B.C. in national age-group championships).

As in the past, Merritt Secondary will field just one girls team, comprised of players from Grades 8 to 12.

“We’re going to be a young squad again this year,” said Brigden. “We have 24 players on the roster, but not too many seniors. We do have a lot of Grade 8s who were part of the elementary touch-rugby programs last spring. They’re really keen.”

Brigden said that she would be happy to see more recruits show up for practices, adding that there are no cuts.

“We’ll take as many players as we can get.”

The girls squad held its first practice on Monday, and already has a tournament planned for the first week of April in Williams Lake.

“We’ll put our team in the development division of the tournament because we have so many players who haven’t ever played a contact game of rugby before,” said Brigden.

All three MSS rugby teams will once again compete at the AA level of high school sports.

The MSS boys’ sides will go up against the likes of Sa-Hali, Westsyde and St. Ann’s in league play, and play exhibition games against AAA schools such as NorKam and South Kamloops.

The Merritt Secondary girls team will match up against Valleyview from Kamloops and Lillooet, and also round out their schedule with some exhibition games — against the likes of South Kamloops and Mount Boucherie in West Kelowna.

All in all, it looks to be another great high school rugby season.