The Chicago Dragons appear to have their best team in years, combining a strong core of returning players with newcomers who immediately will compete for starting positions.
"I'm very excited about the spring season, probably more so than any of the last three seasons," said Paul Cannella, a founding member and match secretary for the gay rugby team. "I think we have a good group of guys that all get along, so that is the key to building the on-field unity as well."
Cannella has played numerous positions during the Dragons' nine years, including flanker, eight-man, scrum half, fly half and wing. He also is a successful local business owner off the pitch, boasting PoopBags.com, Scarlet Bar and Taverna 750 on his resume.
"I'd be pretty confident in saying that, from a player standpoint, our strength lies in the forwards," Cannella said. "That's probably due to experience levels and overall ability. However, we have some solid backs and the key is getting them to play together. Half the battle is knowing what the guy next to you is going to do, without talking or thinking about it. That comes from being there week in and week out, and just developing a feel for each player's next move. When players swap in and out of positions, at practice and in matches, it limits the team's ability to perform to its maximum ability."
Cannella said the weaknesses on the Dragons include overall team cohesion of trust, performance and confidence. "A team will never be successful if the pieces of the puzzle are different each week," he said. "In an ideal world, the only time a change is made to the starting lineup is when a tier two player has pushed himself to become a tier one player who bumped someone else down a notch. Of course injuries happen, but I said in an ideal world.
"The second weakness would be for a dominating back line player to emerge. A stud player who you get him the ball and he's gonna bust through people and leave them in his dust as he sprints for a try. We need that game-changer to step up on our team.
"From a general philosophy standpoint, the biggest weakness for any team, in any sport, is getting the team to bond and be focused on the same mission. Part of me being excited about this season is that we probably have one of the best groups of guys I've seen in a long time. We all get along and have a good time [ together ] . I feel these guys have my back, and I have theirs. That's really important when you're playing rugby. I want to know, and trust, that when I run into some 250-pounder, that if I can't take him down, if I can slow him down, my teammate isn't walking 30 meters away, he's going to smack into him 100 mph about a half second after I do."
The Dragons are the first gay rugby club in the Midwest. The team is a Division III member of the Midwest and Chicago Area Rugby Football Unions.
The team kicks off its 2011 season April 30 in Madison, Wis., and has home matches scheduled for the first two Saturdays in May at Cricket Hill in Lincoln Park.
"Without a doubt, this team will be better than last year's team for many reasons," Cannella said. "That comes from a personnel or player standpoint, expanded social membership, and improvements of the organization overall. I'm already very encouraged to see the direction the team has taken under the leadership of our new president, Craig Sklenar."
The Dragons play in the Division III of CARFU ( Chicago Area Rugby Football Union ) . CARFU's main or official league season is played in the fall, when teams play everyone in their division once and the home or away schedule is rotated each year.
The spring season is the Dragons' friendly season, thus, they can schedule a match against whomever they want to play against.
"With the growth of IGRAB ( International Gay Rugby And Board ) team in the Midwest, we decided to play more IGRAB teams, including hosting several IGRAB Teams over Memorial Day for the Midwest Invitational," Cannella said. "That is going to be an incredible weekend in Chicago"
Cannella said one of the team's key newcomers is Zach Alpert, "whose dedication to practice and the sport shows me that he has what it takes to be a Dragon," Cannella said. "He has played lock and 8 man for his past teams in Wisconsin."
Plus, Red Biller has played rugby for many years and joined the Dragons this spring. He previously played for the Chicago Griffins. "He was done playing on a super league team and decided that he would give the Chicago Dragons a try," Cannella said.
Also new to the Dragons is Aaron Crippen, whose girlfriend actually filmed the team's documentary that ran on Logo about five years ago. "He expressed an interest to play on a team and [ his girlfriend ] Jen suggested the Dragons. She mentioned most of the guys are gay and his response was, 'I don't care. If they'll have me, I wanna play rugby with them,'" Cannella said. "Aaron is a stunt-man by day, a former mixed martial arts fighter, and a current MMA trainer."
Cannella will be focusing on coaching this season.
"After playing with the Dragons since 2005 and coaching for the last five years, this year I've stepped off the playing field to concentrate on coaching," he said. "As with many things in life, this season is 'back to basics' and I will be focusing on the key skills of passing, tackling and ball possession.
"If the team needs a player, I'll step in. But at 42, the physical demands of playing week in week out are beginning to take their toll.
"The Dragons always have been more than rugby and while winning and playing are important parts [ of the team ] , being part of something that is inclusive and welcoming to all is just as important.
"We want to build a strong competitive team this year, one that is able to educate newcomers on the sport of rugby and provide an advanced atmosphere for veteran players. Off the pitch, we want to have a ton of fun with each other, and with our social members. We kind of like to party and are pretty much a bunch of goofballs."