SARANAC LAKE - The 39th annual Can-Am Rugby Tournament kicks off tonight, as the United States under-20 women national select players will compete in a split squad match at Ken Wilson Field.
When it comes to competitive tournaments, it's tough to beat the Can-Am, which will be played on 11 fields in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid and concludes Sunday in Bloomingdale with the championship matches.
Approximately 2,500 players on more than 100 teams make it the biggest rugby event of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, and they'll be hunting for coveted titles in eight divisions, including two women's brackets.
Chris Blanchard, who has taken time off from his job with the Village of Saranac Lake this week to volunteer at the Can-Am Rugby Tournament, paints lines on the pitch at the high school Wednesday while tourney president Patrick Giblin looks on.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
"You can't just bring a bunch of fun-loving guys here any more and expect to win a championship," said Jay Annis, a longtime member of the host Mountaineers Rugby Club and Can-Am Tournament Director since 2004. "You need a group of all-stars or a select side to be competitive in this tournament.
"There are so many teams that come here looking for a championship," Annis added. "When it comes to rugby, it's the highlight of their entire year. If you win at this tournament, you can go and be competitive anywhere. Just look at the Mountaineers Old Boys. When they won it all a few years back; they went to the Aspen Tournament that fall and only lost once. The Virginia Cardinals beat them, and that's a club that's always in the hunt at the Can-Am."
The tournament started with just eight teams, and over the years, has drawn players from across the United States, Canada and literally, around the globe. Annis said that unfortunately, a handful of teams from Europe and one from Australia were attempting to make it here this summer but had to postpone their trips due to economic concerns.
"We've had teams from Ireland, England, South Africa and other countries here before, and that shows the international flavor that this tournament has," Annis said. "All kinds of high-caliber players come here. A tournament like this really gets the competitive juices flowing."
Tonight's opening event will feature the 35 players who are among the best women ruggers in the United States age 20 and under. They are currently participating in a national team camp and staying at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. Originally, they were going to square off against Canada's under-20 national squad, but the Canadians were unable to provide the funding to send a team to the Can-Am. Instead, the Americans will go head-to-head on the pitch in two 80-minute matches, with the second contest taking place in Bloomingdale Sunday.
Saranac Lake High School graduate Baylee Annis will be on the field for the American women. After taking part in a national team camp last month in Colorado, she was also chosen to participate in the Lake Placid sessions and was just named by Rugby Magazine as the top collegiate prop in the United States.
The Mountaineers will have three teams on the pitches this weekend, starting with the Mountaineers Old Boys, or MOB, which opens play Friday at 11 a.m. against the Ottawa Senators at Petrova Avenue, where there are three fields. Friday's action features men's play in the over 35, 45 and 50 divisions.
The Mountaineers men and women social division teams will then compete on Saturday. The men open with a match against Hudson Valley starting at 9 a.m. and the women will start their run at 11 a.m. against South Buffalo. Both contests take place at Petrova Avenue.
Stacey Annis will be the third member of her family playing in the Can-Am this weekend. A year ago, she won a championship playing with the Old Girls, a team made up of veteran ruggers from across the country, including a handful of former U.S. National Team Eagles. Annis said the Old Girls will attempt to make it two titles in a row, but she expects the road to be more difficult this time around.
"Oh my, we'll have our work cut out for us," Stacey Annis said. "Last year, I think we kind of snuck up on teams, but that won't happen again. I think our biggest road block could be My Big Fat New York Rugby Wedding. They have a couple of players getting married on Saturday, and they have a sprinkling of former Eagles too. We're certainly going to give it a shot."
Throughout the weekend, Dean Naegele will be recognized among the ruggers who passed away during the past year. A resident of Saranac Lake, Naegele was a longtime and well-loved Mountaineer who captained the MOB when it won the over-40 division championship at the Can-Am in 2004. Included in the memorial on Sunday in Bloomingdale will be the reading of names of ruggers who passed away, a moment of silence and a bagpiper.