It’s great to be able to say that our Chicago Lions are USA 7s National Champions!

What a journey it has been since the last Nationals in 2019 in KC and the LA 7s in 2020 right as the pandemic started. You could feel something special brewing. Coach Matt Wagner took the reins from Coach Dave Clancy in 2020 and built on what was accomplished in 2019. I have been fortunate to be around this team over the last several years to see the hard work, dedication and a level of organization not matched by many clubs in the country. The posts that Coach Matt Wagner and Captain Michael Ziegler made on Facebook say it all, so you do not need to hear from me. They gave me permission to use them in this newsletter as they truly represent what a Chicago Lions player is all about.

Rugby Sevens has evolved over the years since we went to our first 7s Nationals in 1990. Rich Hughes led the team after I retired and took the squad to the Nationals in 1999. We won our first National Championship in 2007 under the leadership of Aaron Mannheimer and the sustained success we have had over the last fourteen years. We are recognized as one of the premier sevens programs for men and women.

Patrick O’Reilly has been on this journey for a long time, and he does more behind the scenes for 7s than anyone. His passion for the players and 7s is unmatched. Patrick told me that the heart this team showed in Seattle was incredible and our players were physically beaten up yet found the will to get it done. Athletico ran out of tape and our trainer, Jessica Blum was amazing. A special thanks to Athletico as we could not have done it without you.

While we celebrate the Men’s Championship, we must recognize our women who worked just as hard. We celebrate our women’s 7s team for finishing 10th in the country and have had sustained success over the last several years under the leadership of Coach Jeremy Nash and the addition this year of Colin Doyle stepping in when needed.
Finally, congratulations to Will “Chevy” Chevalier (a second-generation Lion) for being MVP and named to the All-Tournament team along with Alex Dorrier and “Gonzo” Mendoza (Capped 7s player for Argentina). We had four players who came thru Rugby Illinois (Chevy, Willis Goodwin, Kai Carlberg and Tom Kacor) and four players from Indiana University (two former students, Dorrier and Hidalgo, and two current students in Chevy and Noah Brown).

We will schedule a celebration soon as many players are playing this weekend in the Rugby Town 7s and also some heading back to college.

Thank you to all our supporters and donors who made it financially possible to bring two teams to Seattle.

~ Jeff Simon, President

Watch the Final on YouTube

Coach Matt Wagner’s unedited Facebook post

How lucky am I?

I sit here at home in Chicago, THE GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD, and I’m reflecting on the past weekend in Seattle and the past 4 months of my life. And I’m just so happy. I keep laughing to myself (& sometimes tearing up) when I think about what we accomplished. WE DID IT! Chicago Lions Rugby are 7s Champions of the United States of America once again. I had to let myself come down to normal life a bit before I attempted to compose my thoughts. And I am probably not all the way back on the ground yet. And buddy that is fiiiiiiine by me. But I have to get some thoughts out into the world, and so many “thank you”s. Like, so many that there is no way I’ll hit everyone who deserves it so for that I am sorry. And I also need you to understand how this came together bcs there was so much more in it than one summer and 13 players. So here goes. & sorry if I ramble a bit. National Champions baby. Drink that in. Drink it in deep.

As the photos roll in, and as I read the posts from the players, and as I replay things in my head, I am just absolutely overcome with gratitude. Tiny Manuel taught me when I was 9 years old to “have an attitude of gratitude” and I try to live my life by that every single day. I am thankful for this club and for this opportunity. The experiences I have had here and the people I’ve met and built relationships with are truly the things that make life worth living. How lucky am I?

I showed up in Chicago in May of 2012 and went straight to my first 7s training. Immediately Eddie Bluemel’s leadership and attitude made an impact on me. I knew I made the right choice. I knew I was where I wanted to be. With a group of exceptional athletes and men. And coaching that group was Aaron Manheimer, a man I have learned so much from about rugby and life and attention to detail and focusing your time on the things that are important. And Patrick OReilly who does so much for this club and team that I can’t even began to elaborate on his impact. He is selfless. He is tremendous. He is my friend. How lucky am I?

And so the stage is set. My playing career was a blast. I only ever wanted to help bring another title back to Chi, and I came close but never got the job done. Over the course of seven years I met and trained and played with and learned from so many incredible people. Jeremy Nash, a man who was on the 2007 National Championship team, I got to learn from him. And he’s still my friend today. David Fee, man we got to do some cool things together – & it’s far from over. I got to learn from him. And he’s still my friend today. Dave Clancy, what a wild ride we’ve been on bro! You taught me a tremendous amount. And he’s still my friend today. And I learned SO MUCH from these dudes. How lucky am I?

I hung up the boots in 2018 when I turned 30. The body just couldn’t handle what is required to compete at this level any longer. Nothing lasts forever, and I felt and still feel at peace with that decision. I joined the coaching staff the following spring. See, I’d coached my alma mater, Purdue University Men’s Rugby 7s (BTFU) for a few years while I was a Lions player and just loved it. Loved getting to work with the boys and interpret things I’d been taught by the people above (and then some). It’s in my blood, my grandad was a coach. He always made it known to me how important it was to be a leader. To do the extras, to do the hard things. So all those factors combined, it was just a no-brainer.

So here I am, now the assistant coach for Chicago Lions Men’s & Women’s 7s programs. It’s 2019, and the men’s team in particular was in a fragile place. In 2018 we did not qualify for the National Championship Tournament for the first time in something like 13 years. Massive letdown. MASSIVE. Clancy knew the culture had to improve, and I knew that great leaders first have to be great followers. So I got my butt in line and we set to change the way things are done here on the near west side of the Chi.

We adopted the mantra “No egos, just amigos”. (And when I tell you that is the principal reason we won the title last weekend, ya better believe me.) We had a great group of guys who just wanted to train as hard as possible and right the ship. They were led by Andrew Guerra . Perhaps you’re thinking “Hey isn’t that the guy who was recently capped to the USA Eagles and who was named Major League Rugby Rookie of the Year?” Yeah, that guy. They were also led by Michael Ziegler, Johan ‘Joe’ Van Zyl, Lucas Thiem, Alex Dorrier, Thomas Kacor, & Jake Hidalgo. These guys did the work. They started turning it around. We regain the Midwest Rugby Union 7s title and make it to the quarters at the Natty. Got bounced by a tough AF Washington Athletic Club Team who went on to win the ‘ship. We finished 5th in the Nation. The Lion’s women finish 7th. Not a terrible year all things considered. Not a bad start. We are getting it back on track. How lucky am I?

Clancy then takes an incredible and well-earned position at UCLA later in 2019 and I am promoted to head coach. Now that was cool. I’ve held this program in such high regard for so long, it was hard to believe that now I was in charge. And here I was in this position to lead and do what I always wanted which was bring another championship home.

My first tournament was LA in 2020, right before Covid hit. We trained hard and we went out there and took 3rd. Only lost to a very good Japan SDS team. Spirits were very high in the group. Everyone was loving each other and the direction and the team culture and we were primed for a title run in 2020. We all know what happened to that season.

But this core group stayed so focused and kept up their training. Zig trained SIX DAYS A WEEK over quarantine. He never let up. Aaron Cummings lived in the gym. All the guys were just so hungry. They kept working and working.

Fast forward to spring 2021 when we’re hoping we can play a 7s season. I had been trying to assemble the team that I thought would get the job done. Mathew DeGutes and Luke Thiem jump on board to help with coaching. Colin Doyle, the man you can always count on, he was in. We added some fantastic pieces to the player puzzle. Noah Brown finally came in. That man played every single minute of the tournament in Seattle by the way. Every single minute! Gonzalo Mendoza joined us from Salta, Argentina – how huge that addition turned out to be! CJ Artuso relocated from NYC to Chi after going to Nationals with Old Blue the prior two years. His experience was invaluable. We returned Will Chevalier (MVP!… MVP!), Willis Goodwin, Zig, Dorrier, AC, TK, & Hidalgo joined us after his Houston Sabercats season ended. I received an email from a French kid at Lindenwood named Clarence Biénès; he got in the mix this summer and was HUGE for us in Seattle. The Terminator himself, Dan Coci said he was all in. And we got some new young guys in that I didn’t know much about in Kai Carlberg and Terran Meek. They were hungry. I love these guys!

There is a difference between interest and commitment, as my HS S&C coach Marc Anderson taught me. When you’re interested, you do something when it’s convenient. When you’re committed, you do it no matter what. These guys committed. All summer long they worked. And we would rack up wins and tournament trophies, and they didn’t care. They had their eye on the goal. They wanted to be the best. They wanted to be National Champions. Two weeks before the show and Coci goes down with a bad knee injury at the end of training. This man is my friend and I was gutted for him. But before we close training he gets up to get in the circle next to me and tells me he wants to say something. And he just tells the boys – boys, we deal with adversity. This is adversity and we deal with it and move on. Next man up must do his job and that is that. – What class. What a professional. My hat goes off to you Cose. You are a true legend and a true champion.
When the final week – week 14 – arrived, they could not wait to get out to the PNW. AC packed his bags on Monday of the tournament week. Monday! WE DIDN’T LEAVE UNTIL THURSDAY! That’s how hungry these guys were.

Friday morning I woke up in Seattle at about 7am and went for a walk. I walked along the river and crossed the little pedestrian bridge from our hotel to the stadium and just walked around by myself. I love early mornings outdoors and how quiet and still they are. I guess that’s an indicator I’m getting older, and that’s ok. And as I took a stroll and looked at the final stage being trimmed out and set up, I just felt very peaceful. I knew that we had done everything we could to be best prepared for the moment. And I knew how bad the guys wanted it. And how much they loved each other and wanted to work hard for one another. “No egos, just amigos”; that’s a powerful thing when you decide you’re gonna live by it. How lucky am I?

Zig led a phenomenal meeting after our jersey presentation Friday night. We talked about why we do this, what is the real bedrock reason we commit to this. Guys went around the room and many of us got emotional. It was a unique experience that none of us will forget. It was a bonding experience that made us love even more. He’s a great leader. The kind of guy you just hate playing against but absolutely love to have on your team. You’d follow him anywhere bcs you know when it all hits the fan, the big man’s got your back.

Day one we start vs a tough Austin team with a lot of familiar faces. This was probably the first time in my life I saw Jack Casey score a try and wasn’t thrilled. But we hang on and get the dub.

Second game v Oceanside, we go up 14-0, I’m thinking we’re gonna cruise. Some mental lapses from us and some great pace from them saw them charge back and lead by 11 points with one minute left. I looked at Chevy (the man would earn tourney MVP) and I said “We have to score twice in one minute. We can do this.” And he looked at me with the most laser beam focus on his eyes. He didn’t say a word. Just turned and ran to his spot. And we did it. Clarence scores the first try. And guess who scored the second try? Chev. Time is up and we’re down one, and CJ nails the kick to win. Cooler than a polar bear’s toenails. 2-0.

Game 3 I knew would be an incredible experience. We’re playing the hosts at the end of the day in front of a great crowd at their house. AND they’re the defending champs AND they knocked us out in the prior tournament. And we dug deep and got the dub. 3-0 day one, box checked and we are into the quarters.

Sunday morning game 4 v NAV who had some absolute guns. Very talented athletes with burning pace. Again we’re in a fight, and again the boys stay poised and score at the death to move on. Thrilling stuff. I couldn’t help but think of the line from Old Willy Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, “All the world’s a stage”. Well we were sure putting on a hell of a show.
Our semi is v STL, our familiar Midwest foe who impressed the hell outta me to make it to the national semifinal. We just kept our heads down and didn’t think about past games v them. Started well and hung on to advance to the final. THE FINAL. Stoke level is high.

Game 6, the last game of the tournament. We’ve got Westside Ronins, another Seattle team with passionate supporters and great players. I knew it was going to be such a fun experience to be a part of this game, especially to play in it. We drew up a game plan that was not complicated, but was going to take a lot of heart to be successful. And if you watched that game, you saw the heart on full display in defense. They just worked so hard for one another. They were unrelenting. If one guy got beat, his amigo was right there to make a cover tackle. We went up 12-0 and hung on to win 17-14. It was surreal. Like the man Jax says – it feels so good to accomplish a goal. I am so proud of these guys.

So we did it. And I am proud beyond words. I’m proud of them bcs they earned it. I am humbled to do the club proud. All the guys who didn’t make this 13 man roster, don’t think you weren’t there with us. Dan Coci and Joe van Zyl, don’t think you weren’t there with us! Our families and our friends and everyone who has come before, don’t for one second think you weren’t there with us. Because you were. That’s what it means to be a Lion.

Thank you to Jeff Simon and Allie Movrich for all the thankless admin work you do. Thank you to all my Lions coaches and teammates I’ve ever had. I cherish our experiences and relationships. Thank you to Jessica Blum! I’m not convinced you knew what you were getting yourself into when you came on board with us, but you were a tremendous trainer and a great part of the team. Tom Argy the greatest video man in the game! Love you man! You help so much!

Thank you to my rugby family, especially from Indy. Thank you to my mom Cyndi Parrett Wagner and my fam for the endless support. Thank you to the love of my life Kelly Allen for having my back and cheering us on always. I love you! All the parents and siblings and significant others – the whole Lions family. All the men and women that came before us. All the ones that will come after. Thank you. We do it for you. We do it so we can ALL be proud.

I was thinking today about how great of an experience this was and how I’ve had the chance to do so many cool things and meet so many cool people through this club (& it’s far from over). But I was reminded of a Bob Marley interview where the journalist asks him about his material wealth since gaining notoriety. Bob says:

“Possessions make you rich?… My richness is life, forever.”

The Chicago Lions, 2021 USA Rugby 7s National Champions
“No egos, just amigos”

Captain Michael Ziegler’s unedited Facebook post

Sitting here at the airport and coming down from this high I cannot help but reflect on a few things:
Leading this group of young men has been the best experience of my rugby career. When Wags gave me the reigns of this team I’ll be honest I had no idea what approach to take, then just did it the only way I knew how. These men taught me more about myself then I could ever teach them. So many people came up to me and said this team is just a “bunch of kids”. I have played at every level in the USA and what they do not know is this is the hardest, most honest group of “kids” I’ve ever crossed the lines with. When I went down with a dislocated shoulder in the final, for some reason I had even more confidence they would get the job done. I’ve been speechless until now.

The amount of people who supported us from Chicago, around the USA and World is humbling. To everyone who donated, sent messages, watched etc. we cannot be more thankful.

Matt Wagner, Goose, Colin Doyle, Patrick OReilly, Jessica Blum, Tom Argy, Ethan Porter, Jeff Simon, Allie Movrich. These are just a few amongst the many people who allowed us to do what we loved this weekend. This support staff was the best ever – enough said.

For those who watched the anthems in the Final you would have noticed the black jersey laid out in front of me. That jersey was for all the past, present, and future Lions who will have worn that black jersey. We wanted to carry your hopes, dreams, and even burdens with us. For the kids in our neighborhood of North Lawndale who may not feel they have a way out, for the kids who need somewhere to go to feel empowered, for people moving to new cities across the country and want immediate friends for life, for the injured who couldn’t make the trip, for every one of the guys and girls back home who gave everything this summer and fell just short of selection, for the people who just don’t understand what this means to us, and for our families and friends…it was not about us, it was about you. We made a promise to you all not to get on this plane without this Cup.

Thank you.

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