There was a brief moment of apparent disbelief for Florence's Zach Cather moments after his opponents celebrated a high school rugby state championship at Corvallis on Saturday.
Cather, one of the Bitterroot Warriors' team leaders, briefly turned away from everyone on the field and seemed to stare beyond the snowcapped Bitterroot Mountains that have witnessed the senior play his favorite sport for the better part of eight years.
"It’s the best sport on earth," Cather said, trying to explain what he feels about rugby, a game almost synonymous with the brutality and toughness needed to play it. "The community around rugby is unlike any other community in sports. You’ll be out on the field, you’ll be yelling at each other and want to kill each other, but after the game everyone's friends."
After his brief moment of solace, Cather quickly gathered himself to return to his team — his family — one that has twice took home second place at the state tournament the last two years.
Cather's shock was very well shared by his Warrior teammates and Bitterroot fans. His team appeared destined to win a 3-try to 2 decision against the Missoula Mud Dogs after fellow senior Michael Golden scooped a Mud Dog loose ball and ran untouched for a try late in the second half of the championship game. The score would have put the Bitterroot boys, leading 14-12 before Golden's try, effectively ahead by two scores.
But an earlier foul was ruled, wiping out Golden's game-icing score and giving the Mud Dogs new life. It was Florence's Eli Christianson, playing for the Missoula Mud Dogs, that got the chance to celebrate Saturday after scoring the go-ahead — and game-winning — try a few minutes after the score-denying debacle.
Fortunately for Cather, Saturday's loss likely isn't where the road ends for the talented rugby player.
Warriors coach Boyd Kanenwisher said Cather is "probably considered by most teams the best rugby player in the state right now." Golden, who captains the Bitterroot squad and teamed up with Cather on a national select U-18 Boys Elite 7's team out of Texas, said Cather's understanding of the game is unparalleled.
"What makes him tough, he knows a lot about the game," Golden said of Cather, who's the captain on the traveling team. "He’s played for eight years so he knows all the rules and what to do.
"(Cather's) one that kind of coaches me up on what to do and what not to do. He brings the whole team together. He leads through the stretches, he’s like my right hand man."
Cather is also outright tough. The senior wore a shoulder sleeve and sling under his jersey Saturday after dislocating his shoulder a week before in another rugby game.
"You’ll notice he left a couple tackles out there that he couldn’t make, and we didn't want him to make, but on offense he just ate ‘em up," Kanenwisher said.
His offensive ability comes from his pure speed and body style that Kanenwisher said is perfect for the Rugby game of 7's — a sleeker, fast-paced version of the traditional 15-vs-15 game that the Warriors played on Saturday.
The 7's game is what debuted at the 2016 Olympics — a level of competition that Kanenwisher said is not out of the realm of possibility for the boy from the Bitterroot.
"He’s got some work to do. He’s gotta want it. You don’t become one of the best in the world without trying," Kanenwisher said. "But he is the right combination of experience, speed, body type, fitness level, I can actually see it."
Kanenwisher isn't the only one who sees it. According to Cather and his coach, Southern Virginia University has come calling to lure Cather out to the East Coast to play rugby. While the 7's rugby program will be in its first-ever season next fall, the team will be coached by rugby legend David Smyth. Smyth coached BYU to five national championships between 2009 and 2015, and he wants Cather with one of his first recruiting classes ever at Southern Virginia.
That should tell you something about Cather's ability right there.
"He played football and wrestled but he loves rugby," Dana Cather, Zach's dad and coach of the Bitterroot girls' team, said. "I know it used to frustrate his football coaches, because they'd say, ‘Hey, you know you could look at some schools for football, and they’re like come on (Rugby)?’"
Certainly rugby isn't in the mainstream in Montana. The internationally popular sport has a cult following in the area, but competing in Rugby here certainly takes a specific type of dedication. It's one Cather has had since he stepped on the pitch just so he could practice in fifth grade, a year before he could actually even suit up and play on the middle school team.
"His older brother, Trevor, wanted to play, so Zach started coming to practice with us and he loved the game," Zach's dad said. "He loves the camaraderie and the physical aspect of the game. He just enjoys what he’s doing."
That love for the game is what makes heartbreaking moments like Saturday's loss OK. Cather knows his 14 other teammates have his back and he has their's.
"Rugby is different in that its got a little bit of a familial feel. There’s a lot of guys on the field in 15s. The ball doesn’t stop. They’re sweating in your ear in the scrum," Kanenwisher said. "...For somebody like Zach, he just fell in love with the sport."
And that fraternity is one Cather should get to carry on at the next level.