SARANAC LAKE - Ten years ago, Guilio Cianci and Mike Espina said they were done playing rugby. But the two Plattsburgh State graduates have made the trip to Saranac Lake again from their homes on Long Island. Just like they have nearly every other summer since they supposedly retired from the sport, and just like they probably will during the years to come.
The two members of the Mountaineers Old Boys are back for the 40th Can-Am Rugby Tournament, which starts today. Their stories are similar to the hundreds of players who are back in what has often been referred to as "rugby heaven."
The tournament established by some of the founding members of the Mountaineers Rugby Football Club - including retired state Supreme Court Judge Jan Plumadore - celebrates its 40th anniversary this weekend. What started as a roster of eight teams scribbled out on a bar napkin has turned into the biggest tournament in the Western Hemisphere.
Evan Scollin of the Mountaineers men’s team takes a line-out pass from teammate Cam Moody during practice Thursday at the Spencer Boatworks.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
Over the next three days in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Bloomingdale, more than 100 men's and women's teams from across the United States and eastern Canada will compete for titles in eight divisions, ranging from some of the best men and women ruggers in the country, to graying veterans who refuse to step away from the game they love.
"I told my wife it was my last year 10 years ago, but look, I'm here again," Espina said. "I think a big reason I come is the camaraderie. Every year I see the same people, the same friends. I play with them and I play against them."
"I started playing in this tournament in '81, '82 when I was with the Mountaineers," Cianci said. "I even played with Jan when he was getting near the end of his career. The best part about it is you see the same guys every year, and they haven't missed a beat."
"Forty years of fun, that's all it is," said Saranac Lake's Sean Morgan, who coaches the local Old Boys side and also helps out as a coach for the next generation of rugby players: the boys and girls who are learning the sport in the Adirondack under-19 program. "This sport brings people together. It's a reunion every year."
Action kicks off today in Saranac Lake with the four Old Boys divisions, which include players 35 and older. The rest of the teams will start playing Saturday, with playoff rounds taking place on Sunday. The finals will be held Sunday in Bloomingdale on the pitch behind the fire department.
Longtime tournament director Jay Annis said he is very excited for a weekend full of activities. In addition to three days worth of games, there will also be a quad rugby contest tonight at the North Country Community College gym featuring United States and Canadian national team players, and on Saturday evening at the Civic Center, there will be a casino night and ceremony organized by the host Mountaineers.
"It's going to be fun, it's going to be nuts," Annis said. "Forty years, that's huge. Something like this tournament that lasts as long as it has, it shows that it's well thought out. You have people here who have been coming back forever.
"The town, the people who live here, they are a key in making this all happen," Annis continued. "The school has been unbelievable, Lake Placid has been great and Bloomingdale has it's hand in there too. Without the support, we'd have a tough time making this happen."
Annis said a stage like the beautiful Adirondack Mountains is part of the draw that brings thousands of tournament visitors back year after year.
"We live up here, and we all know how wonderful the area is," Annis said. "We don't have to go anywhere. Some people come here for the weekend, others come and stay for a whole week. For many of the players, being in this tournament is like a badge of courage. This is the highlight of their year, every year."
The host club will field three teams in the tournament, starting today with the Mountaineers Old Boys, who are affectionately known as The MOB. They play today at the Petrova Avenue fields at noon and 3 p.m.
The Mountaineers men's side starts Social Division play Saturday in Saranac Lake at 10 a.m against Saratoga, while the women's team will begin action Saturday at 11 a.m. against Hudsonbury, also in Saranac Lake at the Petrova fields.
In addition to the adult games and tonight's quad rugby contest, there will be plenty of rugby for younger players. As part of the 40th anniversary weekend, the Can-Am Organizing Committee will expand its annual Youth Rugby Clinic to include a "Full Contact" clinic for children 13 and older. For the past decade, the Can-Am Tournament has been impressed by the speed and agility of the younger children who play the flag version of Rugby Football known as American Flag Rugby. Co-sponsored by the Saranac Lake Mountaineers RFC and Morris RFC of New Jersey, this year's edition runs from 11 a.m to 1 p.m. Saturday in Lake Placid at the North Elba athletic fields.
There will also be high school sevens play. For more information, visit the Can-Am Rugby Tournament's website canamrugby.com.