Wando rugby players piled into an inflatable children’s pool five or six at a time as temperatures cracked 90 degrees during Memorial Day in Charlotte. It was more rehabilitation than vacation, though. Most teams have about five days to rest between matches. Wando had just 80 minutes between two of the most important games in its program’s history. “There wasn’t any time to waste,” Wando head coach Tod Shepherd said. “In that situation you’re trying to get the inflammation out, get your core temperature down, rejuvenate your muscles as quick as you can.” Wando recovered brilliantly with a decisive 35-7 win over Union County to capture the inaugural Mid-South Independent Rugby League championship. The MSIRL, known as a super league, aligned the nine best high school programs from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia in an invitation-only tournament to crown the region’s best high school team.
“We wanted to create the super league with better teams to have more competition at a higher level,” Shepherd said. “The completion was way, way more difficult than what we see during the season.” Each team played the other eight opponents once, with the four best records advancing into a single-elimination playoff. The South Carolina state champion Warriors entered the playoffs as the fourth and final seed. “We thought we could do some damage,” Shepherd said. “Anything beyond making the playoffs, in my mind, was a bonus. But once you get in anything can happen.”
Wando dominated a proud Charlotte Tigers team, 17-5, in the semifinal round. Four months ago, the Warriors fell to Charlotte 15-8 in a match Shepherd deemed “the one that got away.” “In the back of our minds,” he said. “We knew that if we ever saw the Tigers again, we would defeat them.” Wando focused on stuffing Charlotte’s inside game and kicked behind the wingers to attack the Tigers’ fly half. Josh Cummins and Jake Morris both scored in the first half, and Joe Schmidt added a third try midway through the second to open a 17-0 Warriors’ advantage. Wando might’ve shut out Charlotte had it not been for three consecutive penalties and a yellow card late in the game that led to the Tigers’ only score.
“We had a very precise game plan that the boys executed perfectly,” Shepherd said. “We were in control most of the game. I’m not surprised we won. I’m surprised it was only 17-0 with the way we were playing.” Wando had little time to celebrate, almost immediately beginning rehab to prep for the upcoming championship match against second-seeded Union County in less than two hours. Union earned a bye into the championship match as its scheduled opponent, top-seeded Charlotte Catholic, opted to instead participate in the high school nationals. During warm-ups, though, Union lost a player to injury. Rather than play a man down, Union borrowed a player from Charlotte’s team, in effect knowingly forfeiting the championship match. “We still wanted to play that game to prove a point,” Shepherd said. “We wanted to prove that we were indeed the better team. We’d been training for this each and every week since October. We were peaking at the right time, and we wanted prove that we were the rightful champion.”
Charlie van Vliet countered just moments later, taking a quick tap penalty at midfield, side-stepping three would-be tacklers, breaking another, and stiff arming one more on way to the equalizer. “Could easily be the play of the year,” Shepherd said. “It was absolutely incredible.” Wando dominated the rest of the way. Tyler Tran attacked the weak side of a scrum, making the gain line and then getting off a perfect grubber kick to the far corner that Meredith gathered for a try. van Vliet tacked on another try, again with a side-step and sprint past the defense. The Warriors later pressured Union into a shanked kick that Meredith turned into his second try of the game. Meredith and van Vliet both finished with two tries while Schmidt added one.
“We were maybe not expecting to win the super league,” Shepherd said. “I knew we had a good team and thought we had a chance. But to actually win it, to have to play twice in one day and win the whole thing, it’s really just unbelievable.”