Cleveland Area Touring Side Rugby Club
In the Beginning…
Carl Vella first thought of forming his own team when he was playing for the Rovers Rugby Club on the west side of Cleveland. One of the major factors in deciding to start the club was that he dreaded the long drives to and from practice and games. Another was wanting to get back together with his Bowling Green State University (BG) teammates, Ed Cvelbar, Phil Faulhaber and Al Caserta. His goal was to build a program that would emulate the success they achieved at BG. BG was a dominate club in the Midwest and competed yearly for the national championship.
At the 1989 Cleveland Cup post-match party (after many beers), Carl and Phil, who were both playing for the Rovers, and Ed and Al, who were playing for the Eastside Club, got together, had a few more beers, and the Cleveland Area Touring Side (CATS) were born. Carl and Ed immediately thought of 12 players to recruit, then headed to the local bars to find more ruggers.
By August 1989, Carl had mapped out a schedule for the fall. He and Ed paid for the jerseys and fees for the Union, and worked together to choose the team bar and a field for practice and games. Eventually Ed became President and Carl was the team Captain.
Although the CATS had some great athletes and some early success, they really started to play great rugby when Coach Robin Norton joined the team. The CATS 15s team won their division many times, were Ohio Champions once and were Ohio runners up once. The club’s greatest success was winning the Cleveland Cup and having bragging rights as the best team in town. Until that victory, other Cleveland teams never gave much credit to the startup CATS. The CATS 7s team was also very successful, again thanks to Coach Norton. Once they really learned to play 7s the right way, the team competed for championships in every tournament they played in. CATS 7s won the Ohio’s a few times, Sevens in the Snow a few times, were runners up in the Toronto Sevens (out of hundreds of teams) and were runners up in the Midwest Championships.
The best practice location in Cleveland was Gordon Park at East 72nd since it was accessible from all sides of town. For games, they initially used the Metroparks field across from Euclid Central Junior High before moving to Humphrey Park in the North Collinwood neighborhood, off of Lake Shore Boulevard and East 152. After that came Bishop Road Field, next to Cuyahoga County Airport, where the cow pasture was mowed and posts were erected. This is where the Scrum machine ended up…it’s probably still up there in the woods, covered over with vines and branches. The team also practiced at the Euclid Creek triangle next to the softball diamond for a few seasons.
The relationship between a team and its bar is very important to the success of a rugby club and the CATS had many. Mike Milo, the owner of Euclid Beach Tavern, supported the club for many years. The Tavern had great food, cold beer and was close to Lake Erie for post-game swims. The Tavern eventually closed so the team followed Mike to his new bar for a season, then bounced from (or got kicked out of) bar to bar after that. Joseph’s, Cebars, Lucky Lady, Crawl Inn (which should have been called the Crawl Out) and The Horseshoe were some of the bars the team enjoyed. But apparently the increase in revenue two days a week was not enough to put up with the fights, singing, beer throwing, scrumhalf bowling, etc.
Buy a CAT a beer and he will tell you about the great times, friendships and amazing success the team had.
The Tree Scrum Story remembered by Carl, Ed and Dan:
Carl - I was late to practice one day so Ed had the guys scrumming against a tree at Gordon Park. I pulled up and Dan Shaw picked his head up against the tree and screamed, “Vella! Will you get over here!” (lol)
Ed - It’s true. We usually averaged between 10 and 18 guys at practice that first season. So “practice” was a relative term. That day we had a few new guys and tried packing down against the backline. As you might guess, they were useless (JK). So I suggested using the tree to stabilize the unit. It was a big ‘ol sturdy one, too. Dan Shaw had every reason to be pissed, his head was the one we tried to push through the trunk.
Dan – I am pretty sure Phil was one of the props. I remember trying to get some pushes against the backs, but that was useless. Then Ed suggests going against this big oak that was kinda off to the side. I say ‘no way’ and do remember looking at Joey Lunn like this guy is crazy. We never did anything like this at John Carroll. It must be a BG thing. Then I see that Phil has the same look as me. I look at the tree again and think, "This is really gonna f&%*ing hurt!"
Thoughts from Ed:
I remember…on the happy side.
Craig Eldridge running home after one of the first games to shower, (mistake #1), coming back to the Euclid Beach Club all dressed up for the night, (mistake #2), and then volunteering to be the top of the eight man lift, (mistake #3). Phil Faulhaber turns to me and asks if we should pull him off the stack of guys to be “lifted”. I tell Phil to try to warn him without letting the others know, which Phil promptly does. Craig tells Phil it’s okay, Ed (me) will never be able to budge that pile of bodies anyway and he therefore won’t mess up his party clothes, (Mistake #4). Phil tells me we’re good to go and the countdown began. Carl looks on in amazement as Eldridge takes his second shower. Classic.
…and the not so happy ones.
In the early morning hours before the Queen City game, Kevin Sopko and Brett Jones died in a car accident. I got a call from one of my wife’s family’s friends telling me they were gone. Instead of cancelling the game, since we were already 2-1/2 hours into a 3-1/2 hour drive, we met the team at the field and told everyone together. It was a horrible day. Carl and I hugged it out and the whole team ran around the pitch to warm up without a word. I remember beating the piss out of QC and feeling like shit for our fallen comrades and their families. They were two very nice guys and some very good up and coming locks. RIP Kevin and Brett.