Who We Are: The Village Lions History
The Village Lions Rugby Club was spawned from Greenwich Village’s Red Lion Pub in 1989, bringing together a collection of bartenders, bouncers and boozers from all corners of the globe. Founder/Red Lion owner Alan Whelan, an Irishman, opted for black and white stripes on the Lions jerseys as an homage to the Barbarians, a global invitational team, while the Red Lion logo on the chest saluted the pub where the club was born.
The early Lions took the Met. NY union by storm, winning the third division in 1991, then grabbing the DII title a year later. Whelan would frequently fly in talent from rugby nations to work at his bars and play for the Lions, including Kiwi captain Joe Kelly. The Lions were celebrated for their Southern Hemisphere flair on the pitch and for post-match accommodations that were the envy of the opponents. After a season in the top division in 1993, the Lions dropped to Division III after Whelan stopped flying in premiere talent, and several players left for stronger clubs. A small nucleus, including Ken Murphy, Rob Babcock and Chris Ratay, kept the Village Lions afloat, and helped the struggling club rebuild into the successful club it is today.
The Men’s Fifteens A & B sides competes in D2 and D3 respectively with the Women now competing in a new Empire GU D1/D2 Hybrid League. In the Summer the Men and Women both have taking steps to compete at highest level of regional Sevens in the Northeast Sevens Championship Series (Qualifier).
Spring 2000 saw the Lions launch a women’s team on the backs of Jennifer Lightbody, Jessica Houser, Gretchen Doughty, Rachel Liberatore and other pioneers. In that first season, they were happy to have 15 players turn up on a Saturday and a men’s player to lead practice. But momentum built quickly, and the “Leonas” had a meteoric run of success under the coaching of Greg Parsons, Mary Holmes and Mike Barry.
Coach Mike Barry has anchored the team in a position to compete in the new Empire GU League. With players aligning with select sides like the Northeast Academy and Empire All-Stars, the women’s future looks bright.
From 2002-2008, the Women’s team earned a spot in the DII National Championship, winning the National Championship in 2002, and following with third- (2005, 2008) and sixth-place finishes (2004, 2007). With great leadership from the likes of Jackie Finlan, Meg Collins and other leaders, those trips to Nationals were accompanied by several DII Northeast Championships, and precluded the move to the top division in 2009, facing powerhouses like NOVA and Beantown.
The Men’s team earned their ticket out of Division III in 2002, winning the Met NY title under then coach Paddy Bartlett. With Bret Costain serving as club president, they climbed out of Division II eight years later, under coach Expo Mejia, after a heady tear through the playoffs. Smashing Boston’s Middlesex club in the 2010 Northeast Championship, 39-13, the Lions next ventured to the National Sweet 16, and lost a tough one against Doylestown (PA) 35-33.
With Andrew Britt as Head Coach, the Lions again got to step on the National Championship stage this past spring. Running the table in the playoffs, including an Atlantic North title match against the Mystic Barbarians (37-19 to the Lions), the Village Lions headed to Pittsburgh in May and won their Sweet 16 match against Wilmington 21-7, then lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the Detroit Tradesmen after holding a lead for 79 of the first 80 minutes.
Under the coaching of Dr. John Greally, the Men’s Sevens team has competed in the Atlantic North Region of the Club 7s Championships (Qualifier) the past 3 years finishing in 5th in back to back seasons just behind regional Sevens powers Old Blue, NYAC and Mystic River.
Brad Dufek has taken on Sevens coaching responsibility for the Women, and set the Leonas up to be a Sevens program on the rise.
With a push from Bill McHugh and Alan Lobo, the Village Lions launched a 35-and-over team in 2001, quickly building rivalries with the Connecticut Greys and the Gentlemen of New York. The Lion Kings have toured Memphis, Chicago and Rehoboth, Delaware, and will embark on a trip to New Orleans in fall 2016.
Terry Buechner serves as old boys captain, succeeding Pat Nihan, and Buechner was Old Boy of the Year in 2014. Guillaume Blin won the honor in 2015.
The club has retained its international flair over the decades, with players from no fewer than 42 nations wearing the Lions jersey. The club made trips to Louisiana Mardi Gras tournaments in 1994 and 1995; Amsterdam/Copenhagen/Stockholm in 2000; Italy a few years later, and then England/Ireland in 2005. Subsequent tours saw the Lions junket to Argentina in 2009, and Portugal and Spain in 2010.
The women’s Lions toured Italy in 2001 and Spain and France in 2010, and made regular rugby-related pilgrimages to the Las Vegas 7s and the Savannah St. Paddy’s Day Tournament.
Several Lions have suited up for national teams, including Brendan Reidy for Western Samoa; Clay Luraschi, Kenneth Stern, Chris Hitch, Jackie Finlan and Rosette Rough for the Philippines; Luis Schroeder for Luxembourg, and Nils Clotteau for the tiny African nation of Benin.
Leona stalwart Jessica Houser has represented the U.S. national women’s team.