Rugby Nation USA Profiles: High School Rugby Central, a Follow-up with Mark Stepsis

HS Rugby Central Regions

Back in January Rugby Nation USA profiled Mark Stepsis and his project High School Rugby Central. For those who may have missed it, Mark is the developer of a web database for high school rugby that has the potential of reshaping high school rankings using a virtual league structure

High School Rugby Central also provides a data driven ranking system using an algorithm and based on the World Rugby ranking system. 

For any high school interested Mark has offered to create a web presence on his site for any teams or leagues who want to task him with the job. Contact Mark via is Twitter account @HSrugbycentral or through his Facebook group at High School Rugby Rankings. 

Rugby Nation USA caught up with Mark to check-up on his progress. 

Rugby Nation USA (RN): Mark, reintroduce us to your concept please. 

Mark Stepsis: want to visualize the vast landscape of American high school rugby. I feel that many people involved with high school rugby are expertly aware of their local/regional area, like Grant Cole in Texas, but they are much less aware of the situation beyond their geographic area of expertise. 

Current High School Landscape

In addition to mapping high school rugby teams spatially, I want to organize them by competitive level. One use of this information would be to create a new, objective system for ranking teams across regions. For instance, there is little disagreement about which are the top 5 single school teams in the country. When you talk about ranking the top 50 teams, however, what is the basis for determining the 30th best team versus the 31st?

World Rugby uses a ‘points exchange’ system to rank all international teams. I created an algorithm that uses that concept with some adjustments that I thought appropriate to measure the strength of high school rugby teams.

RN: How is the project going so far?

Mark: The dynamism of high school rugby in this country is exciting and challenging. I need to update my maps and graphs to account for the teams that seem to have gone dormant and those that have popped up for the first time in 2017. I created a website to organize all of my information and went live even though it is far from finished. I am hoping that feedback and suggestions from the interested community will help me to make the website more user-friendly. I am meeting with a graphic designer tomorrow to improve the pretty boring and basic layout I have so far.  

Example High School Map Project

RN: What are some of your successes with the project to date?

Mark: It has been personally satisfying for me to learn so much about high school rugby beyond my own area of expertise in the Northeast. All of the interest and feedback I have gotten so far has energized me and helped me to keep going and to give me a better sense of where to go with this project.  

RN: What challenges are you encountering?

Mark: Collecting scores. While some leagues are great about reporting scores on their state based organization websites, there are many ‘black holes’ from which information does not seem to escape. I have to dig and scrape to find accurate match results for many teams, which is very time-consuming, and I still know that I am missing scores from many more teams. I did create a twitter hashtag #hsrugbyscores and I have gotten a few people to report scores that way. 

The format I need is: 4/2/2017 Penn (IN) beat HSE (IN) 23-15. My algorithm crawls through a massive spreadsheet of scores, so I need to know the date, the name of the teams (it is not enough to say ‘Tigers beat Barbarians’ or ‘Fairfield beat Xavier’; our country is so big that many team and town names are duplicated in multiple states) and, of course, the score.

My rankings are only as good as the match result data I have. Tournaments and non-league games are crucial for me, but it is sometimes hard to find these scores. Even adding a handful of new scores to my spreadsheet can have cascade effects on the rankings of far-away teams.  

I decided to ‘publish’ 2017 rankings based on the data I have collected so far. If coaches can help me fill in the gaps in my data by looking at their team’s page on my website and letting me know of any errors or omissions, I will update my spreadsheet, re-run the algorithm, and update the rankings on my website. There are over 800 high school teams in the country so that is a lot of web pages for me to create. Any coach who requests that I create their team’s page will go right to the top of my to-do list.

RN: What is your goal with the project?

Mark: Originally it was to improve the ranking system so that teams would know where they stood in relation to the other teams in the country. I think it could also help teams find appropriate non-league competition when they go to tournaments or on tour.   

My project can also serve as a reference tool because it will have a page dedicated to every team in the country. In one website you can look up contact information, website and social media links, competitive level, and past results for every high school team.

RN: Have you given the project a name, High School Rugby Central?

Mark: @HSrugbycentral is my twitter name and ‘High School Rugby Rankings’ is the name of my Facebook group. I do need to settle on a good name that is consistent across platforms. Any suggestions?

RN: I’d recommend High School Rugby Central, consistent. Maybe readers can go to your Facebook page, join, and make suggestions of their own. 

Who are your partners, if any?

Mark: This is currently a solo effort but I have gotten useful feedback from coaches and other people in the high school rugby community.

RN: Has coaching at Fairfield helped your process?

Mark: Fairfield, CT actually has two separate rugby programs. I am an assistant coach at Fairfield Prep, a Jesuit school. We have grown from a school club team with 25-35 players to a varsity program with over 100 players, four paid coaches, and four separate squads Varsity White, Varsity Red, JV, and freshmen). Two of the national powerhouses, Xavier (NY) and Greenwich (CT) are in our area. Though we have beaten both teams in the past, it is clear that they are better than our team. But I still wondered how good are we if you take those teams out of the equation? My number-based approach has enabled me to get a pretty objective sense of where every team stands.

As our program grew, we were faced with a great set of problems and questions. One of the most important questions we encountered as we grew was whether to cut players or not. Our coaching staff actually had a spirited debate over a few years about the pros and cons of cutting guys. Ultimately, we settled on a policy of ‘if you commit to us, we will commit to you’. That means that any players, regardless of athleticism or experience, is welcome to join our program. If he commits to attend and work hard in practice and in the weight room, we will coach him and give him playing time. This inclusive approach poses some logistical challenges–we had one JV coach with over 40 guys in 2017–but the players (and their parents) appreciate the opportunity to learn the sport, to improve at their own pace, and to get guaranteed game time.

It seems that most teams faced with the growth in numbers take the same approach that we did. Witness Gonzaga (DC) and their ‘Purple’ team and ‘Black’ teams, both of which play varsity schedules. I noticed in Ohio this year some of the bigger programs entering their B team (and even a C and D team) in lower competitive divisions. I think that is a great way to grow rugby, by giving everyone a chance to play instead of having a bunch of guys nominally on a team but actually just watching from the sidelines for most of a game, like some other sports.

RN: What do your coaching contemporaries think?

Mark: Everyone who I have heard from so far has been pretty positive. Coaches are quick to point out if I omitted a win of theirs from my records but less quick to let me know about their losses. There have been some friendly disagreements over some of my decisions, like recording forfeits as a 28-0 score which can affect rankings, or by counting games that might have been billed as pre-season games or ‘friendlies’. I have been asked to keep strength of schedule in mind, which is fair.  
The most common gripe I get i:s “There is no way that X should be ranked higher than Y… X beat Y during the season”. My answer is that when Ireland beat New Zealand in Chicago, Ireland took rating points away from New Zealand, but not enough points to overtake them in the standings. It can take time for the numbers to reflect what might seem obvious to people on the ground. That is one of the effects of having an objective system where opinion and personal feeling doesn’t really come into play. If your team is really as good as you contend they are, the numbers should eventually show that.

RN: What’s the next step?

Mark: Keep building the website while improving its user-friendliness. Keep encouraging the rugby community to provide me with missing scores (I’m talking to you, Tennessee!). Analyze the data and report my findings on my blog and encourage more people to join the conversation.

RN: What’s the end goal?

Mark: Moonshot goal: to build an online hub for the global high school rugby community. 

I think you’ve got a great program and concept, hopefully more feedback will come. I look forward to seeing this grow into a nationally recognized ranking system. 

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