Tackling to the Top

Grace Lady, Staff Writer

His cleats sink into the damp sod of a foreign field. He gets closer and closer to a group of boys already tossing around an oblong ball with a set of rules unknown to him.

The only two things he really knows are the name of his friend, Jake, and the name of this new sport: rugby.

Coach Tod Shepard shows him how to hold the ball and how to toss it like the other boys. By the end of the day, he’s the best passer on the field.

Four years later, he’s one of the best players in the nation.

Senior Charlie van Vliet was selected for the USA Rugby High School All American 2016 Winter Camp, where he trained with around 50 of the best rugby players in his age group in the nation from Dec. 26-31 in Casa Grande, Arizona.

When van Vliet started playing with the Wando Rugby club team his freshman year, he had never even heard of the sport before. A friend in van Vliet’s gym class encouraged him to join the team.

By the end of the first day, his talent was obvious to Shepard, who has over 20 years of experience in the sport.

“When he first came out as a freshman, he had never touched a ball before,” Shepard said. “I showed him how to hold it, how to pass it, and right away by the end of practice, I could tell he was a natural because he was the best passer after one practice.”

Van Vliet quickly stood out by the end of his freshman year, being named the B-team MVP. His sophomore year, he was B-team captain, and last year as a junior he was named MVP of the A-team.

“He has become a leader of the team. Kids look at him, and whatever he says they’ll listen. We just voted for captains recently, and he won by a landslide,” Shepard said.

“I’ve definitely evolved since [freshman year]. I’ve become a lot more knowledgeable,” van Vliet added.

After making the South Carolina All-Star team and playing in the Regional Cup Tournament, scouts took notice of van Vliet’s talent and ability. Because of this, van Vliet was selected to play nationally.

In total, about 150 players from around the United States participate in the camp, but van Vliet’s age group consists of only about 50 players. Once selected, the van Vliet travelled to Arizona for a grueling week of training and scrimmages.

“For five or six days, we just played rugby nonstop. We had two, two-hour sessions a day, and then we had scrimmages at the end,” van Viet said. “It was a really strict schedule, but you still get time in the locker rooms to meet everybody and fool around and stuff.”

The scrimmages at the Rugby All American Winter Camp are attended by more scouts and coaches, who will ultimately pick some of the players for the chance to play internationally.

“Over the five days, they get to look at you a lot and we have a couple scrimmage games so that’s how they select you,” van Vliet said.

Rugby has given van Vliet the opportunity to travel and meet lots of new kids, and this experience combined two of his favorite aspects of the sport.

“At the state level, we go to camp and meet kids from all over the state. When I went to Arizona, I met kids from all over the country,” van Vliet said, “I really just like playing really serious rugby at the top level.”

Van Vliet has the potential to play in France or Canada this spring or summer, depending on which team he makes. Van Vliet is still awaiting a response from the scouts, but has hope that he will make a team.

“They’re still sending back feedback, individual feedback, because there’s a lot of guys there,” van Vliet said, “98s can’t play in the summer, so hopefully I’ll get selected for Canada if I don’t get selected for France.”

Because there aren’t very many well established rugby programs in South Carolina or in the southeast, Shepard was surprised van Vliet was selected to play nationally.

“It’s tough for South Carolina kids to get recognized because the teams out west get all the publicity,” Shepard said, “When you’re going to recruit, you’re going to go to where all the good players are, not necessarily South Carolina.”

Shepard never doubted van Vliet’s physical abilities, though. Shepard could tell he naturally possessed the mental toughness needed for rugby.

“Rugby’s not like football where you run for 10 seconds and you take a 10-minute break. Soccer you run constantly but there’s no physical demand. You run a marathon, it’s pure endurance and it’s painful but you don’t need power and strength, but Rugby it combines all these physical requirements. It makes you tougher, it makes you want to persevere, it makes you want to overcome whatever limitations you have and just put everything you have on the line. It changes you mentally,” Shepard said. “He’s really good, really impressive.”