MISSOULA, Mont. — Standing at the sacrament table Sunday morning, cousins Jackson and Collin Kanenwisher still appeared battered with scrapes, black eyes and sunburns. Jackson’s brother, Spencer, winced a bit while ushering at the chapel doors. Collin’s brother Beau was limping slightly as he passed the sacrament with the other deacons.
The day before, the Kanenwisher boys and their high school teammates clenched the Montana state title for club rugby in a fierce battle that ended 41 to 15. The Bitterroot Warriors, a majority of whom are LDS Church members, had a Cinderella season and are leaving the field with more than a trophy.
Organized two seasons ago, the Warriors' first players included the Kanenwisher cousins and their best friends, brothers Zander and Adam Smith. They recruited from each county high school but had the most success signing up church friends.
Boys from four LDS wards in four high schools joined the team and set the standard for leadership, language and commraderie.
Nick Recht, who will attend BYU-Idaho this fall, had an outstanding performance in the semi-finals of the round-robin tournament, held on the University of Montana rugby fields in Missoula. He scored one try off a kick from fly-half Collin Kanenwisher and then scored in the final minutes with a kick that toppled into a hard-fought victory over Kalispell 8 to 7.
“The championship was great, but I was really proud to beat Kalispell,” Recht said. “We were the only team to beat them earlier in the season, and they are a mean, dirty team. They really are bigger and better than us with a few players that were really hard to play against, so our goal as a team was to beat them in the second round. We weren’t really thinking beyond that.”
Recht was recruited to play with the boys he attends seminary and church with and discovered a love for the game that had a lot to do with his teammates.
“I just love the diversity of rugby,” he said. “You can kick, pass and tackle and then run in every position, but it’s the team itself that made it pretty fun.
“Our team captains Spencer and Zander always told us to ‘keep our heads’ and represent Bitterroot in a good way,” he said. “When things got intense, some of the players start playing pretty dirty in the rucks, but our captains didn’t want us to let it get to us or give in and play dirty back.”
Before every game, the Warriors grouped in a circle on the field for a prayer, “and that really made a difference,” said Recht.
Charlie West, a member of the team and not a member of the Mormon church, said praying before each game “brought us together as a team and helped us play better.”
He said playing with so many sets of brothers “made practices a lot more interesting.”
The five Fadely brothers from a Stevensville ward 25 miles north added strength and character to both the high school and junior high Warrior teams. Twins Mitchell and Marshall and their younger brothers Preston, Ethan and Jason also played rugby.
“We were all really exhausted playing three full games in one day,” said Mitchell Fadely. “But we were at church and excited to tell everyone. My dad even had it announced in priesthood meeting. I think our last match against Simms was the best we’ve ever played. We’ve really improved over the season, thanks to our coaches, and we were all in really good shape to still have enough energy to play three games and win.”
Freshman Beau Kanenwisher who played scrum-half scored a try during the first minutes of the championship game after a pass from his cousin Jackson.
“We’re naturally better because we’ve been playing (sports) together for so long,” he said. The rivalry between the younger brothers and the older brothers motivated them to make their captain brothers proud.
“They don’t act like it, but I know they’re proud of us and how we play,” said freshman Adam Smith, and then added a story when he was glad to have his brother back him up. “These massive guys on the other team were picking a fight with me, but then Zander and Jackson came flying in. It was pretty cool.”
Stephen Curdy, a Hamilton High School junior and Blodgett Canyon Ward priest, talked about his experiences in sacrament meeting the day after the championship. The assigned topic was integrity, and he had no problem finding symbolism from rugby experiences.
“In the finals we played Simms who play with a lot of sportsmanship and integrity,” he said. “They made the game a lot more enjoyable, and our team had the goal to play the same way.”
While fledgling teams across Montana competed during regular season, they were learning the game at the same time. The resulting matches were sometimes brutal with multiple fouls, both intentional and unintentional.
“At times it can be pretty hard to keep your standards when the other team is playing dirty and swearing,” said Mitchell Fadely. “But it’s important to keep your head and not play dirty or else your team is pretty much hated throughout the whole state.”
Twelve-year-old Preston Fadely joined the rugby club this year and loved playing with other Mormons from the valley. “They were great examples,” he said. “I’m definitely going to keep playing rugby because I love everything about it. I love the sportsmanship, I love the whole game and how it’s played.”
As for next season, when his brother Spencer steps down as captain, Jackson Kanenwisher said, “We’re excited but there’s no pressure.”
Added his cousin Collin, “We figured out how to play right and we’ll do it again.”