By Curtis Pashelka
Bay Area News Group

This article is from the www.mercurynews.com website

St. Mary's will play perhaps the biggest rugby match in its 119-year history today when the Gaels face No. 1 Cal in the national semifinals at Stanford's Steuber Stadium.

The fifth-ranked Gaels (20-3) have All-American Kevin Swiryn to thank for their first appearance in the Final Four. Swiryn came to St. Mary's in 2003 to play wide receiver for the football team, has made a successful switch to rugby. After a 1-11 season, and just days before the start of the '04 spring practice, the school discontinued its football program because of financial considerations.

"At that time, it was probably the worst day of my life," Swiryn said. "My entire high school life, I had been trying to get a (football) scholarship. I had worked so hard to get there, coming from" Casa Roble-Orangevale "where it was hard to get recognized.

"Then you get that chance, and it gets taken away."

Swiryn considered transferring to UC-Davis but lacked the necessary credits.

He also looked into transferring to a community college but it was cheaper to stay at St. Mary's, where his scholarship was being honored. Then Swiryn found rugby as an outlet.

"I flew under the radar as an athlete in football, but I rose above that in rugby," he said. "No matter what, it's been great. I miss football, but I've been able to play two sports in college. I'm not saddened by the fact that I didn't get to play football for four years, because rugby's been so great to me."

He experienced rough patches, particularly with nagging injuries. But he also thrived under Coach Tim O'Brien, who allows players to improvise.

"Kevin was an unknown," said Volney Rouse, a senior on last year's team. "But he was scoring tries left and right just because of his natural abilities and his work ethic."

The Gaels have developed a strong program in recent years, compiling a 45-12 record from 2005-07. But St. Mary's lost nine starters from last year's team. Yet the Gaels rebounded this season, defeating Air Force 52-40 and upsetting No. 4 Kutztown 37-25 to advance to their first semifinals.

"We were going to go from being ordinary to being special, and we were going to do it together." O'Brien said. "Even if it was with a bunch of misfits. Kevin fits in with the misfits. He's the lead misfit."

Now the Gaels face Cal, which defeated them 78-22 in February when St. Mary's was without several players, including starting 8-man Brandon Vedder.

Swiryn wasn't fit, either. Despite suffering from a hyperextended knee, he insisted on playing the 23-time national champion Golden Bears.

When he told O'Brien, the coach replied, "Are you crazy?"

O'Brien promised his senior captain the Gaels would face Cal again - even though the only way that would happen was if both reached the Final Four of rugby.

Now, the Gaels hope to play better today.

But their task won't be any easier. The Bears (22-1) have won by an average of more than 50 points, including a 102-3 victory over Tennessee in the playoffs last month.

Second-ranked BYU plays No. 11 Colorado in the another semifinal at 5 p.m.

Average rating
(0 votes)