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Over the weekend, there was a championship-worthy squad taking the field near the shores of Lake Erie. No, it wasn't the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium but rather the Cleveland Crusaders at the Polo Fields in Chagrin Falls. The Crusaders, who vanquished the Indianapolis Impalas 48-12, continued an unblemished season with an overall record of 7-0. With the win, Cleveland also clinched the playoffs and home-field advantage throughout. On November 6 the Crusaders will face the playoff's second seed, either Chicago or Indianapolis, at home as they continue their quest to bring a championship to Northeast Ohio.
This perfect season was a long time coming for the premier amateur rugby club. Cleveland has always had a rich rugby tradition going back to the early 1960s and there have been many different Rugby Clubs over the years. Famously there always seemed to be at least two Cleveland area Rugby Clubs with East and Westside crosstown rivalries. These included the Blues versus the Grays, The Westside Rovers versus the Eastern Suburbs RFC, the Cleveland Rugby Club and a number of lesser-known Clubs that would pop up every so often for a year or two.
The rivalry between these two Clubs had been fierce with both Clubs having their ups and downs, always competing to be known as the best team in Cleveland. This rivalry forged plenty of great matches, friendships, and stories, but as Rugby grew in America, Cleveland Rugby was falling behind. It turned out that the cross-town rivalries that Cleveland embraced were actually holding the Cleveland Rugby community back.
Sure, it's common for major cities to have multiple Rugby Clubs, but the constant was that there was always one top team that represented their community at the highest level. Whether it was the Chicago Lions, the Detroit Tradesmen or the Cincinnati Wolfhounds, Cleveland was left as the perpetual underdog with their talent, infrastructure and funding split in half alongside the Cuyahoga River.
Because of this in 2015 many felt it was time for a change. They felt it was time to set small cross-town rivalries aside and show the world the true might, passion and determination that Cleveland Rugby was capable of. Members of the Cleveland Rovers and Eastern Suburbs Rugby Club chose to become brothers and The Cleveland Crusaders Rugby Club was formed. Within just a few years Cleveland would become Midwest Champions, reach The National Championship Quarter Finals and win some of the most prestigious Rugby tournaments in the United States.
The founding members of the Crusaders had a series of meetings that would map out their new club. One of the most important items would be their identity. The name itself was critical and hotly contested and it came down to the finalists: the Cleveland Vanguard, Cleveland Union, the Cleveland Guardians and the Cleveland Crusaders. A vote was held in the basement of The Old Angle Tavern in Ohio City and the room was moved by a statement by founding member, Steve Burke who said, "We are going on a Crusade for Cleveland Rugby. This Club must be the Cleveland Crusaders."
Crusaders center, Charlie “The English Hammer”Jewers on receiving the Crusaders Shield yesterday for his excellent play in the Club's 48-12 victory over Indianapolis. The Crusaders Shield is meant to honor the "toughest" man of the day and also personifies Cleveland's overall toughness as a city.
"Little did we know, that years later we probably would have had the opportunity to get a big payday when the Cleveland Indians changed their name had we chosen the Guardians," joked Crusaders President Terry Kilbane. "You live and learn I guess."
The colors, meanwhile, were a lot more lighthearted and easier of a decision for the founding members of the Crusaders.
"We were banging our heads against the wall trying to come up with a color scheme that was fresh and we could call our own," shared Kilbane. "We were struggling with this until during one of our meetings, a guy randomly walks by in a 90s era Cavs Starter Jacket. Blue and Orange. It was a done deal."
To personify the team at any given moment, founding members Trent Szente, a woodworker, and Taryn Avon, who just happened to be crafty in metalworking, fabricated the Crusaders Shield. According to Kilbane, the award was made as a statement of the Clubs' identity. Often the players that score the most points or make the exciting runs are awarded a lot of the credit for success. The Shield is meant to honor the "toughest" man of the day. The guy who put in the hard yards and punished the opposition on both sides of the ball. It is awarded each match by the previous recipient. When you win it, you are responsible for it until you award it to the next man. Simply put, Cleveland is a tough city and its rugby team should reflect that. In that sense, the Shield is a reminder of that toughness and grit.
Now unified under one crest and one shield, the Crusaders have seen tons of success in their six years of existence. In their first year, Cleveland won the Savannah St. Patrick's Tournament, which is one of the most prestigious rugby tournaments in the United States. Clubs came to Georgia from all over the world to participate and in the championship match, the Crusaders faced the USA Rugby South Panthers. Mind you, this Panthers squad was an All-Star team from all of the Southern States with wealthy financial backers. They were flying guys in from all over the United States while the Crusaders were just a bunch of local players from Cleveland who had only been playing together for a few months.
In their first year, Cleveland won the Savannah St. Patrick's Tournament, which is one of the most prestigious rugby tournaments in the United States. In the championship match, the Crusaders faced the USA Rugby South Panthers and won 18-14.
"The idea that we would beat them was ridiculous," said Kilbane. "However, we believed in ourselves, dug out a brutalizing whistle to whistle performance and pulled it off. Easily the biggest single match upset in Cleveland Rugby history."
That upset, which saw the Crusaders win 18-14 victory over the USA South Panthers at Savannah's Daffin Park, was only just the beginning of the Club's success. In 2018 they made good on the Club's purpose and won the Midwest Championship at a level further than any other Cleveland team had ever gone before. In 2019, the Crusaders made it to the National Championship with a quarterfinals appearance, falling in a closely contested match. In 2020, the Crusaders won their second Savannah Saint Patrick's Day Tournament Grand Championship, defeating the USA South Panthers a second time.
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But, soon after that electrifying win, things had to be put on hold for the Crusaders due to the pandemic.
"We were sitting in the Savannah airport after winning the biggest spring rugby tournament in the country," said Kilbane. "We were buzzing off our win and looking forward to taking the world by storm. Anything and everything seemed possible for the Cleveland Crusaders.
"While waiting for our flight home, someone mentioned that three cases of COVID-19 had been discovered in Cuyahoga County. We all know how the rest of that story turned out. Like everything else in the world, rugby had to be put on hold."
With no rugby to be played, the Crusaders turned towards giving back to the local Cleveland community. They worked on offering their labor to demolish and refurbish a struggling food pantry along the Detroit Shoreway so that it could serve people in need. They then worked with the pantry distributing food in order to get it to families in need on Monday evenings. On several occasions, they also worked with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank as well. Kilbane shared that they even broke the record for the amount of food packed in a single shift.
Thankfully, in the fall of 2021, safety protocols were put in place, and there was a relatively safe return to rugby for a short exhibition season. In fact, the first rugby match played in the United States since the beginning of the pandemic was between the Crusaders and the Cincinnati Wolfhounds.
Now, Cleveland is 7-0 and striving for their second Midwest Championship and hopefully an eventual National Championship. The team encourages fans or those curious to come to watch them play on game day. For more information, visit their website and also follow them on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. The team is also always looking for sponsors who want to align themselves with a brand that represents Cleveland with great pride as well. The Club's sole purpose is to be the driving force of the Northeast Ohio rugby community. Now, more than ever, the Crusaders need the support and backing of every Cleveland fan possible.
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