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By Matthew Hayden, Coach
The history of Okapi Wanderers Rugby Club is as unusual as its name. The club was founded in October 2014, with 32 youngsters and a few parents. The pitch consisted of half a soccer field in a Weston, Florida, public park. Club founders Matthew Hayden, Mariano and Mariana Gallo, and Gavin McLeavy wanted do more than just start a rugby team; they wanted to bring the energy and culture of the rugby clubs that they remembered from their native countries of Argentina and England.
Okapi Wanderers have grown to be one of the largest and best equipped clubs in the United States with more than 260 players for the 2016 season. The team has 26 qualified coaches. It has enjoyed a Florida state championship.
The name Okapi Wanderers was chosen at the first training session by the players who felt that an Okapi (A member of the giraffe family) was a suitable symbol to reflect the diversity of nationalities within the newly-formed club. The name said about the team that, “It’s a mix of different things, and we’re all different.” The “Wanderers” came from the fact that, in the club’s infancy, it had no fields on which to practice.
Rugby Union is a true team-game with opportunities for players of all shapes, strengths, abilities and sizes, and is currently, the fastest-growing steam sport in the United States. Rugby was a newly-appointed Olympic entry in Rio 2016. Rugby in America is going from strength to strength. The vision of the founding members of Okapi Wanderers was to create, not just winning teams, but rather to build a supportive community environment around this great sport. With that idea in mind, it created a club structure designed to support the growth and development of the youngest U8 player to most senior of the Old Boys.
The club is registered as s a 501 (c)(3) Florida not for profit organization. Okapi Wanderers are run by a dedicated and hard-working team of volunteers headed up by Mariana Gallo with support from the City of Weston. This partnerhsip has allowed the club to acquire its own home-field at Tequesta Trace Park with lights and equipment, including contact-pads, tackle bags and a scrum machine – all of which were recently used by the Chilean National Team as they prepared to face the USA in the Americas Rugby Championship.
Okapi field nine divisions: U8, U10, U12, U14, JV, Varsity, Men’s Florida D II (A and B teams) and Old Boys. We have achieved success this year with our U10s, JV and Men’s teams all clinching Florida championships. These winners were honored by the Mayor of Weston, Daniel J. Stermer at City Hall in recognition of their achievements. The club was also excited as its U10 and U12 teams were selected to play an exhibition game during halftime of the Chile vs. USA ARC game to showcase the growth of rugby in the USA.
Many of the club’s youth players have enjoyed high-level recognition with selection to represent the Florida “Juice” select sides at the Southern Regional Championships in Charlotte, North Carolina, Here they were seen by college recruiters and national scouts. Three members of the club’s varsity team, Tony Gallo, Jack Freixa and Shane Ulrich, have been invited to attend the USA U20 Selection camp in December 2016. Honors too, for two of the club coaches, as Men’s leaders Matthew Hayden and U14 Coach Patrick Radler have been asked to head-up the inaugural Florida State All-Star U14 team.
Okapi Wanderers continue to promote the growth of the sport. This year, has seen the club, in conjunction with the Florida Youth Rugby Union, launch the first-ever YMCA Rugby Summer Camp at Weston Regional Park. Headed up by club Head-Coach Gavin McLeavy, the camp is a fun way to encourage youth participation in a healthy, active lifestyle. Giving back to the community is also high on the Okapi list of priorities; players and coaches regularly participate in community activities like beach and wilderness clean-ups, local charity events and, serving as a collection point for disaster relief efforts.
In order to create continuity and help players as they move between age-groups in their rugby careers, OWRFC has developed a signature style of play that is taught throughout the club. During the past summer, the club held eight clinics for coaches who learned general and specific aspects of the Okapi Wanderers RFC game plan, adapting it to each age group. Topics included teaching and developing skills (emphasizing player welfare, tackling, possession, passing and handling), and scrums, lineouts, rucks and mauls.
As the club looks ahead to the upcoming season, it will be filled with more new experiences; the dream of creating a club structure that allows players to continue through all age-groups will become reality as this year’s high school graduates become the first to step-up to the Men’s division as they defend their state championship.
The 2016 fall season started in October and the 2017 season will run to May. New players are always welcome. For more information about Okapi, visit the website at http://www.okapiwanderersrugby.com/