Lucas Baistrocchi Growing the Game from the Ground Up

by Stephen Sheehan on July 10, 2014

lucas

Most boys grow up wanting to be a rock star, baseball player or maybe even an actor. For Lucas Baistrocchi, his life’s dream has always been about rugby.

From the time he first picked up a rugby ball at the age of 5 for Manuel Belgrano, a club in his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to most recently suiting up for the USA Rugby Collegiate All-American team, rugby has been the focus of Baistrocchi’s life.

His rugby journey started back in Buenos Aires, and also included stops with Stade Francais, Nido de Aguilas and Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago, Chile. But it wasn’t until 2006 when he moved to Weston, located in South Florida, that Baistrocchi’s rugby aspirations really took off.

With an intense hunger to develop his game, Baistrocchi searched for clubs around the area to play with. However, he couldn’t satiate his appetite and even considered playing men’s rugby with the Ft. Lauderdale club. Not yet 16, he was ineligible to play for Fort Lauderdale. So, as he’s done his entire life, Baistrocchi took it upon himself to grow the game.

With the help of a teacher at his school (Cypress Bay High), and a few friends, the group started the Weston U-19 club. For three years, Baistrocchi not only starred for the team but he also started and coached the Weston U-14 team alongside some of his close friends.

“Luckily, the small operation we started went on to expand and now the kids I used to coach are developing into outstanding rugby players and adults,” he said.

Baistrocchi’s list of accolades from his early playing days include playing for the Florida Thunder U-20 on a North Carolina tour, playing for Rugby Academy of America U-20 against Georgia U-20 as the curtain opener match for the Rugby World Cup Qualifier game between USA and Uraguay in 2009 and playing for the Florida Juice U-20 against a New Zealand touring side. It was through his experience with the Juice playing at Fort Lauderdale Ruggerfest that Baistrocchi would be introduced to the University of Florida Men’s Rugby Club’s coaches and players—a moment he will never forget.

“After I met Coach Ken Simmons and Gary Byrne and was introduced to the elite group of players representing the university, I knew that’s where I wanted to study,” he said. “I wanted to be part of that family at all costs.”

Ultimately, Baistrocchi’s dream came true and he quickly became an integral member of the Gators squad. During his four-year career at UF, he enjoyed both individual and team success, often through an incredible work ethic that trickled down to his teammates.

Matt McGee, who played alongside and also lived with Baistrocchi, was floored at his teammate’s dedication both on and off the field.

“He was so strict with his nutrition and measured and tracked every little thing that went into his body,” McGee said. “He’d stretch and foam roll multiple times a day, did yoga and anything that was necessary to get back to full strength. He watched film all the time, and it showed as his knowledge of the game is impeccable.”

Robert Roux, who played rugby for the Gators for five years, met Baistrocchi before he had even been accepted into UF and immediately knew there was something different about him.

“Even though I had only been playing rugby for a year, I could tell he was a special player,” Roux said. “He already had all the rugby skills needed to be a great rugby player in college, but that didn’t stop him from working harder than anyone else. During the four years I’ve known Lucas, I have seen him develop into an extraordinary rugby player but more importantly I watched him become a great leader in the club and a person who everyone can aspire to be.”

With Baistrocchi dictating the game at flyhalf, the Gators captured three Florida Cup championships, won the inaugural SCRC championship, made two appearances at the Collegiate Rugby Championship and won second place at the SCRC 7s Championship. Of course, he couldn’t have done it without the help of his teammates, coaches or his father, who he named as his biggest inspiration.

“My father cut his playing career short when he suffered an accident working underwater,” Baistrocchi said. “Ever since I was born he has been there for all of my accomplishments. Just watching him succeed in the professional world and making my mom and siblings happy serves as my constant motivation to improve as a person and make him proud every single day.”

While many players are satisfied with just playing rugby in college and perhaps for a men’s club after graduating, Baistrocchi has been and continues to be intimately involved with growing the game in the United States. He interned with Florida Rugby Union, where he got a firsthand glimpse at the dedication it takes to help grow the game he’s loved since the age of 5.

“Getting involved with the day-to-day operations and all the planning involved to grow rugby in Florida gave me a better insight to just how hard people like Evan Haigh work to expose our athletes to higher-level rugby,” he said. “During my time as an intern, I was able to sharpen my time management, organization and research skills. These skills are fundamental to success in any aspect of life, so I believe that any time I was able to work on them I got better as a person and as a player.”

Following his final game with the Gators in the SCRC semifinal against LSU, Baistrocchi set out follow his dream of working for USA Rugby. The sport management major went through a thorough application and interview process with the organization before the exciting news came. This summer he’s working in the Youth Development department, which is a great fit with his experience starting the club in Weston.

“Moving to Boulder was a smoother transition than I thought, and so far I’m loving it,” he said. “To see rugby grow across the nation is my motivation to always give 100 percent in everything I do.”

Baistrocchi’s summer has been jam-packed, as he was named to the USA Rugby Collegiate All-American team after a grueling four-day training camp that he described as one of the toughest moments of his playing career. Never one for settling, Baistrocchi’s ultimate goal is to be an Eagle.

“I don’t think there is a greater honor than standing with the best of the best in the country representing the United States of America,” he said. “Our generation has the power to move American rugby in the right direction and eventually compete with tier 1 nations. I think we are getting very close to that and I want to be able to say that I was lucky to be involved in that movement.”

Of course, there comes a day where any athlete’s playing days come to an end, but Baistrocchi hopes to be one of the pioneers of growing the game on the home front. He’s a classic example of never forgetting where you came from.

“The dedication and passion that many of the FRU members have for this sport is very encouraging for the future of Florida Rugby,” he said. “I believe that the state has some of the best athletes in the nation, and due to geographical distances they are hardly ever recognized. If I can help other players from Florida reach out and play competitive rugby at a higher level I think I can become a small part of the movement to put Florida Rugby on the map.”

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Florida’s High Performance Program All-Star Team proved that there’s plenty of rugby talent being developed in the Sunshine State at the recent South Regional All-Star Tournament at Life University.

The team went 2-2, beating Smoking Mountain (17 to 14) and Tennessee (15 to 12) while falling to South Carolina and Louisiana. Even though the team would have liked to leave Atlanta with a winning record, ultimately the trip was a major success for a team that continues to develop future collegiate stars.

Coach Matt Wise, who teaches at University High School in Orlando, has been at the forefront of the HPP team’s success. He and the coaching staff invited 40 players to two different training sessions to help narrow down the selection.

A panel of five ultimately selected the 28 players who traveled to Atlanta based on skills, positional flexibility and coachability, Wise said.

Despite having limited practice time, the coaching staff had high expectations heading into the tournament.

“The expectations of the coaches is always to win,” Wise said. “That’s what we went there to do. We didn’t meet those expectations, but we laid a lot of good foundations for the future.”

Some of the adversity came about because of that lack of practice time. Wise said the team had only about eight hours of total training time together, and that unfamiliarity and lack of consistency was a key difference in the tournament.

“We had quite a few seniors, some of them who are leaving the program,” Wise said. “So there’s a constant flow of players coming in and out during the developmental process.”

Still, the team flashed moments of brilliance, particularly when it played with an aggressive edge. Fullback Edwin Escelera (Daytona) had an excellent tournament. Wise described him as a “warrior” and one of the more consistent all-around players on the squad.

“We were running a lot of our attack to him wide and in the open field,” he said. “He did everything we asked of him and then some.”

Of course, the results aren’t even the most important part of the process. Getting exposure and networking with college coaches and recruiters is one of the goals of the program. Both Escelera and team captain Jacob Ponder were scouted by Life University, one of the top rugby programs in the country.

Now that the tournament is in the books, Wise hopes to put together a North-South Challenge that will feature an All-Star squad from the north (Orlando, Tampa, Daytona, Cape) against a team comprised of the eight teams from the south.

“We want to take every kid that’s part of the HPP and move them forward,” Wise explained. “We want them to make their club members better rugby players.”

For Wise, who took to coaching after injuries slowed him down as a player, teaching and coaching are interchangeable terms that have allowed him to continue growing the game he loves. A coach of the Orlando Junior Griffins for three seasons, he’s seen every senior graduate on time, and three have earned full-ride scholarships to American International College and another earned one to Life University.

The program has also produced two Junior All-Americans in three years, with the most recent being Mitchell Wilson of Orlando. Putting these talented youngsters in a position to succeed not only in rugby but also in life makes all the hard work worth it.

“They may be separated in terminology, but coaches are teachers and teachers are coaches,” Wise said. “If you’re a coach, you’re ultimately a teacher. You just happen to be teaching a sport.”

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