Rugby Nation USA Profile: Mark Stepsis, founder High School Rugby Central

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by Jason Graves

You may be asking who is Mark Stepsis, what is High School Rugby Central  (@HSrugbycentral), and why should I follow him on Twitter?  Ask yourself, are you rugby fan? Are you interested in grassroots rugby, youth development, and high school growth? If any of those answers are yes, then following @HSrugbycentral is a must.

When I first saw the products Mark was creating I had to reach out and get to know the man, the method, and the motivation behind the project.

Rugby Nation USA (RN): So Mark, tell me a little about who you are.

Mark Stepsis (MS): I’m Mark Stepsis.  I live in Fairfield, CT where I coach high school rugby at Fairfield Prep (since 1990) and I teach high school history at Darien High School.  I went to Williams College, where I started playing rugby in 1986.  My first club was Connecticut Yankees, who won last year’s D3 National Championship (as Fairfield Yankees).  I am a C1 referee with the New England (RN: Rugby) Referee Society, a Level 300 coach, and I am chair of the boy’s high school competition committee for Rugby Connecticut.

RN: What drew you to rugby over the more traditional US sports?

MS: I got hooked on rugby at Williams College. We had an active, robust group that was competitive and fun-loving. Being student-run meant that we were responsible for our own success, which provided lots of opportunities for personal growth and leadership. My first game was a road trip to Middlebury where I played D-side. Both the social element and the game itself grew on me to the point that getting better at rugby has been a guiding force in my life pretty much ever since college. The values that rugby upholds like integrity, inclusivity, and grit are important for the game and for life.

RN: So, tell me about this project of yours, High School Rugby Central (@HSrugbycentral)

MS: My project is to comprehend the national high school rugby landscape. I’m pretty tuned in to my local and regional scenes but I was ignorant of much of the recent growth in other parts of the country. I made a spreadsheet to record all scores from all matches starting with the 2016 season. In the course of assembling that data, I created a ‘virtual league’ encompassing the whole country with three Conferences composed of three Divisions each. Everyone likes to know how they stack up to the competition, so I divided the league into Single-School and Multi-School teams and then further sorted teams by competitive level. The competitive levels are:

  Premier teams can compete for a National Championship, representing the elite programs in the country.

  D1 are the best teams in their Conference after the Premier teams.

     D2 are the next best teams in their Division

     D3 are established teams which don’t yet have the competitiveness of D2 teams

     D4 are new or emerging teams which struggle to complete a season.

RN: How do you rank the schools?

MS: I use World Rugby‘s system for ranking teams, with a couple of modifications. Since there are over 700 teams, I use a 1000 point scale instead of a 100 point scale. I also allow rankings to exceed 1000 if the results warrant it. Since I had to start somewhere, I used Goff’s rankings (RN: Alex Goff, rugby writer The Goff Report) prior to the start of the 2016 season, assigning #1 teams 990 points on my scale, #2 got 980, #3 got 970, etc. Teams unranked by Goff all got 300 points.

Then I found a computer coder–Matt McDonald from Worcester Polytechnic Institute–to write a script that crawled through my spreadsheet and calculated the ‘points exchange’ for each match. Teams that beat much lower ranked opponents don’t gain any points, while upsets can result in a pretty healthy subtraction from the higher-ranked team with a corresponding addition to the lower-ranked team’s rating. The points exchanged shrink the closer the two teams are to each other in rating. Victories of more than 15 points yield a 1.5 multiplier to the points exchanged.

RN: What have you found so far?

MS: Some of my findings so far are:

1) The ratings are only as good as the data I input. Where I can’t find scores, I can’t make accurate calculations. One of my goals is to provide a platform for score-reporting nationwide.  I would like to get teams to start reporting scores to #hsrugbyscores in the following format: 4/18/17 Alpharetta Phoenix (GA) beat Wando (SC) 30-29.

2) Goff’s rankings were pretty solid at the top, with some head-scratchers further down the list both in terms of teams that were on his list and teams that were not. To be fair, his is a more subjective methodology which takes into account player turnover while mine only looks at actual match results. I think these methods can complement each other as people discuss where team’s stand. Any initial over- or -under-ranking will eventually be erased by actual match results as teams lose or gain rating points with their actual losses and wins.

3) Folks who watch these rankings are quick to point out when they beat a team that is still ranked higher than them. Remember that when Ireland the All-Blacks in Chicago New Zealand was still the #1 ranked team. Ireland gained rating points and New Zealand lost points, but not enough to change the overall standings at the top. When teams are far apart on rating points, it will take a few match results to fully close the gap and change the leaderboard standings.

RN: How can people find your data?

MS: I am working on a website to organize and present all of this information, but right now I have the twitter account @HSrugbycentral, a facebook group called “High School Rugby Rankings” which I invite anyone who is interested to join, and an email address schoolrugbyrankings@gmail.com.

RN: Your graphics are amazing, like this one showing the total number of high school teams in the country.  How do you make them?

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MS: I made the graphs with google sheets and the maps with a free application called mapmaker in order to get a visual understanding of where the high school rugby teams are distributed in the country.

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RN: New England is one of the bigger rugby hot beds, what’s the rugby scene like in Connecticut?

MS: Like much of New England, Connecticut has lots of college teams. In the 2016 men’s D2 season, Southern Connecticut State University, Sacred Heart University, and Coast Guard Academy all advanced to the playoffs. Not bad for a small state! The region also boasts the Fairfield Yankees, reigning Men’s D3 National Club Champions; we have a current Eagle (Alycia Washington) who plays for the Hartford Rose, a National Panel referee (Miles McIvor), and a Premier High School team (Greenwich). After having just two high school teams-Greenwich and Fairfield Prep–for a long time, we had a burst of growth over the past decade that increased the number of high school teams to fourteen. Youth programs are now starting to take root. 

RN: At the time of our interview the National Development Summit was going on in Baltimore, did you get a chance to attend?  If so, what did you think?

RN: At the time of this interview you’re attending the National Development Summit in Baltimore, what are you thoughts?

MS: I attended last year’s National Development Summit in San Francisco which I thought had a better agenda for coaching than this year’s event. The referee track was great this year and last year, but the best part of the event is the networking. I got a lot done in the networking breaks.  

RN: What are your thoughts on the current high school landscape?

MS: It’s amazing to me as I wrap my mind around the whole national landscape how many teams have been born in the last ten years. Kurt Weaver (RN: Kurt Weaver was interviewed 1/16/17 on the Rugby City Podcast…check it out) and USA Rugby provide some helpful structural tools to foster a growth environment, but the growth is being driven by coaches, players, administrators, and parents at the grassroots level. Once you discover rugby, it’s hard not to fall in love with it.

RN: How did your Fall Season go?

MS: I refereed all Fall for club and college matches and continued my development in that field. High School rugby is a Spring sport. Last spring, Fairfield Prep had some setbacks like losing to Ridgefield for the first time and losing to a very strong Fairfield side but we played Greenwich very well in a 26-12 loss and ran the table on the rest of our state competition, won our first Northeast Jesuit Tournament, and beat Xaverian in Massachusetts before getting thumped by Greenwich in the State Championship. We developed a big crop of freshmen and sophomores and are returning a strong junior class for our 2017 season.

RN: I’m sure many of the Fairfield Prep kids want to go on playing rugby, what’s the current pathway for your players?

MS: Many of Fairfield Prep’s players continue to play rugby in college and beyond. Local coaches are working on providing opportunities for kids who want more rugby to play outside of the Spring season. Connecticut’s high school coaches are doing more collaborating outside of the competitive season to pool their resources and develop players. 

RN: How ‘s that?  Can you give an example of the sort of collaboration you are referring to?

MS: Fairfield Prep recently hosted a college fair where coaches and players could meet. A few of our guys now are looking to attend college based on the introductions from that event.   The Fairfield Yankees are growing under the leadership of head coach David Lyme. After their 2016 D3 National Championship they are undefeated and plan to play in D2 and D3 in 2017. Some kids who don’t go to college are playing for the Yankees. So are kids who played four years of high school and four years of college rugby, so between the local club and the many colleges, anyone who wants to keep playing rugby has multiple ways to do it.

RN: Are there any of your peers you feel may not be getting the recognition they deserve?

MS: Frank Decker has been the Head Coach of Fairfield Prep Rugby for over 35 years(?), which I’m sure makes him the longest-serving coach in US high school rugby. Under Frank’s leadership, Fairfield Prep has grown from a club sport with one side to a varsity sport with four teams (Varsity A and B, JV, and freshmen) which has toured Toronto, Dublin, Winnipeg, Buenos Aires (twice), and San Francisco (three times), as well as traveling to tournaments in DC and Dallas and hosting teams from Wales, Ohio, and France. Most of our graduates continue to play in college and beyond. Frank is not a self-promoter, but I think his integrity, his love of kids, teaching, and rugby, and his high expectations have contributed greatly to the development of the game and to the growth of hundreds of young men.

RS: Thank you very much for your time and for the work you’re doing, Mark.  Your information is fascinating and the project seems rather daunting.  I wish you luck and look forward to further developments.

MS: Thank you for the opportunity!

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