Brad Baker never set out to become the face of high school girls rugby in British Columbia.
He played the sport in high school, but he had other passions that ran deeper when he was a young teacher a quarter century ago.
“When I first started in the program at Carson Graham I was more of a soccer and lacrosse player from my own sports days,” he says.
That changed, however, when a pack of girls at the school started to push hard for a rugby program of their own. David Smortchevsky, a Capilano Rugby Club player, was set to coach the team, but they needed a sponsor/coach from the school.
“The group of girls that really wanted to start the program 24 years ago, led by the Grade 12s at the time, they really pushed for the sport to be at the school,” says Baker. “I was a fairly new teacher who wasn’t coaching a sport in the spring, and they approached me to be part of the team. That was the start of it.”
Since then Baker has become synonymous with girls rugby in the province, his Eagles winning the Lower Mainland title in each of his 24 seasons, playing in 21 provincial AAA finals and winning 10 of them.
At the end of May, Baker took the field with his team for the last time, his Eagles once again making the provincial final. Both Baker and co-coach Rick Pimlott, who has been by Baker’s side for the past 16 years, hung up the clipboards for good after Carson lost 20-7 against host Shawnigan Lake. It was an emotional ride for Baker.
“There was one time I walked away from the field with tears running down my eyes,” he says. “It was tough. I didn’t want that final whistle to go.”
When the final whistle did blow, Baker was there to share in a silver medal with his last group of Eagles.
“I was just so proud of the kids,” he says. “Our girls competed hard. They gave everything they had on the field. … I saw a lot of heart at the final. Shawnigan Lake is a bigger team than us, but we hit them hard, they hit us hard, our girls kept getting off the grass and competed every minute of the game.”
In his time in the sport, Baker has watched girls senior rugby grow from less than a dozen teams concentrated in a few locations to now 75 teams spread across the province. And through it all, Carson Graham has led the way. Rugby is a powerful part of the school’s culture, for both boys and girls, says Baker.
“Because we run a program from Grade 8 to 12, we’ve got girls who have never played a sport before but they come to Carson Graham and they want to join our program because they see the cohesion and the value of being part of a team,” he says. “What I love about rugby is it’s a true team sport. You support each other through the good, the bad and the ugly. And not only that – when you compete in games and coach against other people, the camaraderie is so important.”
Winning games and championships is great, but Baker says the biggest reward he can get is bumping into former players and finding out what an impact rugby had on them during their time at Carson.
“One thing I’ll remember from these 24 years is seeing the girls, seeing these student athletes, be confident in themselves and being part of a team, and at the end of a season seeing how much growth they have personally,” he says, adding that his advice for any student, or any teacher, is to experience the growth that comes with being part of a collective effort.
“Get out and be a part of a team sport at school,” he says. “It helps you do better in school and better in life.”