January 21st, 2014

St. X's Parker rising to fame in rugby world

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Conor Revell

Staff Writer

St. X's Parker rising to fame in rugby world
Wes Parker made the High School All-American rugby squad and will play for the U.S. team this week / photos by Sharron Hilbrecht

Many Americans consider rugby to be a sport that's popular everywhere but the United States, but it is the fastest growing sport in America. And one of the game’s brightest young stars lives in Louisville.

Wes Parker, a senior rugby player at St. Xavier, has been selected for the High School All-American rugby squad.

Parker will have a chance to lead the U.S. squad to victory when more than 240 teams from around the world play in the Las Vegas Invitational this week, from Thursday through Saturday. He plays at the No. 8 position and is one of the three outside scrums.

“I knew I was a good rugby player, but I didn’t know that I was going to do that well,” Parker said. “It was a little bit of a surprise, but it wasn’t too farfetched of a goal for me to make the team, so I guess I somewhat expected it.”

Parker is no stranger to winning. He led the Tigers to consecutive state championships as a sophomore and junior and hopes to win a third straight this season.

But he knows he is going to be playing with the best of the best in Las Vegas, and it will be a far cry from rugby in Kentucky.

“The teams here in Louisville are working to get better,” he said. “But the level of play and competition is so far beyond what we see here in Louisville.”

Scott Saylor, Parker’s coach at St. X, isn’t surprised about his selection and says Parker has the tools to be a terrific rugby player at any level.

“Wes is a very athletic kid,” Saylor said. “He’s very fast, very strong, good kid, and he’s a student of the game and he pays attention. He loves the game and does a lot of things right and works very hard. His overall physical condition is very good and his dad played rugby, so he has his parents‘ support.”

A number of Americans have never even seen a rugby game, but Parker grew up with the game.

Paul Parker, Wes’ father, played rugby in college in the late 1970s and still plays recreationally.

“I started playing rugby in 1979 at the University of Kentucky when I went to school there,” Paul said. “The program at UK started in 1969 and that planted the seed for me playing rugby. I developed a lot of friendships — that was a long time ago — and I still consider those guys to be some of my best friends and that’s one of the great perks of this game is that you develop friendships that stay together.”

Wes grew interested in the sport while attending his father’s games, and when he arrived at St. X in 2010 he decided to join the rugby team. And his career took off.

“My Dad has been playing for many years,” Wes said. “I grew up with it, but it wasn’t until freshman year of high school when I started to play really competitively and I played on the Kentucky All-Star team and did really well. Now I’m getting ready to play on the All-American high school team.”

Things have flipped and now Wes plays in front of his dad, an assistant coach at St. X.

Saylor said Wes stood out almost as soon as he started playing for the Tigers.

 “I noticed his freshman year that he was a special player,” Saylor said. “In fact all of my seniors this year started as freshmen. They were in the state final game and we were behind by five at the end of the game and he got the ball in his hand and was clearly supposed to score at the end of the game that would have won the game. But he’s a special player on the field.”

Football or rugby?

Going into his senior year, Wes was set on playing college football, but he has  changed his mind and will play rugby at Arkansas State or Arizona.

“Arizona has contacted me — they just signed a new coach, but they’re trying to build a top program,” said Wes, who played outside linebacker for the Tigers. “And then Arkansas State contacted me as well and they just won the national title in seven-on-seven rugby, which is the same type of tournament I’m going to play in in Las Vegas. Those are the two main schools that I’m looking at.”

So why did Wes change his mind and choose rugby?

Rugby will become an Olympic sport in time for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, and he would love to play on the first American rugby team.

“During football season I just wanted to play college football,” Wes said. “But after this camp a bunch of doors are starting to open. College coaches are coming up to me and telling me they want me to play for them. So I’m going to play rugby at the next level in college and maybe, depending on how well I do there, I can make the USA Olympic team.”

Football isn’t an Olympic sport, so if Wes were to stick with the latter, he would never have the opportunity to play on the world’s biggest stage.

Not to mention there are several different dynamics in rugby.

Rugby is played at such a fast pace,” Wes said. “It’s almost continuous. In football you play for about four seconds and then you stand there for about 40 seconds. I like how rugby never stops and that it’s really physical. Everybody is also involved in rugby as everybody gets to run the ball, anybody can score. That part of the game is pretty cool.”

Unlike football, where you wear protective gear, rugby athletes have to play through a lot of pain.

No rest for the weary

“Your endurance training has to be a whole lot more developed in rugby than football,” Paul said. “You have to train for speed and distance endurance. It’s a long haul, play goes on and it’s almost continuous.

“You don’t have a break between the plays. There’s contact in both sports, but it’s a different kind of tackling. Another big difference that a lot of people don’t realize is serious injuries in rugby is rare. You don’t have the equipment you wear in football in rugby and you have to prepare yourself and tolerate the pain.”

And in rugby, you have to be able to play both defense and offense and there’s not a lot of time to rest.

That means staying in shape is critical and you can’t let up at any given time. Those who don’t work hard often don’t play rugby very long.

Rugby players pride themselves on how hard we have to work,” Wes said. “In football you have to do about 10 minutes of sprints, but in rugby you have to do about 30 minutes of sprints in each practice before you get to start practicing.”

Saylor and Paul are both very complimentary about how hard Wes works on the rugby field day in and day out. So the sky is the limit for him.



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