WESTMINSTER — It's nice to go out on top, and that's what Mason-Dixon Rugby Club coach Mike Gallagher is doing.
The 47-year-old Gallagher, who has run the Carroll-based rugby group since 1987, steps down after this spring session.
Several other members of the club will share the coaching duties in the fall.
But Gallagher can take pride in seeing his team prosper after almost disbanding several years ago.
From that ignominious near-end, it has recovered to become a power in the Potomac Rugby Union, which governs the sport in Maryland, Washington and northern Virginia.
Saturday, the Mason-Dixon players gave their retiring coach a final regular-season going-away present by skewering James River of Virginia, 30-13, at East Middle School.
The Carroll-based squadpulled away steadily after leading only 8-6 near the end of the first half.
The lopsided win gave its A side, or first team, a final regular-season mark of 5-2.
The B side, at 4-2, didn't play.
Jobdemands have forced Gallagher to sit out for a while, though he says, "I will probably be back sometime when things settle down at work."
This fall's committee of coaches, which takes over from him, inherits a team that has grown steadily in both numbers and experience inrecent years.
The roster numbers roughly 35, some of whom are part-timers who play in either the spring or fall.
But Gallagher said22 are full-time ruggers, each with an average of four years playingexperience.
And because of its seasoning, that hard core has become wise in the arcane strategies and lexicon of this English-inventedsport with which few Americans are familiar.
"They have really matured. I can talk about points and identify areas (in the opposing defense) to attack without explaining. Each knows where the other 14 players are on the field," said Gallagher, a 17-year veteran of the sport himself.
The club's development has placed it at or near the championship table in two of the Potomac Union's three divisions.
Mason-Dixon is reigning champion of Division II, which lies just belowthe cream-of-the-crop Division I teams.
The team won that crown ayear ago by taking the division's Rites of Spring Tournament, an affair it chose to enter because its own Division III has no such tourney.
The county team also is 3-0 in Division III and will win that loop if it wins two remaining divisional games this fall.
Gallaghersaid his team's rising fortunes even result in positive vibes from the referees.
"We get feedback after matches," Gallagher said. "Weget compliments on our style of play and fitness (the latter resulting from stiff two-a-week practices where running is emphasized). Theycall fewer and fewer penalties on us.
"They're recognizing we're an up-and-coming club -- a club with class," he added.
On Saturday, Mason-Dixon's Bill Utermahlen scored a try (similar to a football touchdown, except worth four points) on a 30-yard run five minutes into the game to make it 4-0, and Mark Napolitana's 40-yard scoring jaunt to the left made it 8-0.
Then, after James River pulled to within 8-6, Tom Maggs picked up a loose ball and scored from 12 yards out just before halftime.
Tim Desmond added the two-point conversion kick, and Mason-Dixon led, 14-6, at intermission.
During the mid-game break, Gallagher was confident but a bit wary.
"We felt we could beat them but we knew we were in for a competitive game. We had a lot of work to do," he said.
After circling around the James River defense much of the first half, Mason-Dixon changed tactics and attacked its center in the second.
The strategy switch made the second 40-minute half even more difficult for the visitors.
Desmond ran to pay dirt twice, Tony Gilbert once, and Jeff Hutsell and Scott Myersbooted two-point conversions as Mason-Dixon steadily pulled away from the Virginians.
Gallagher and his players look forward to the postseason. First is its Division II title defense in the upcoming Rites of Spring.
"They're pumped up for it. For them it's the highlight," he said.
And in July, Mason-Dixon will trek to Canada to playin the annual Ottawa Rugby Tournament.
"The Canadians play a finesse game like the British, and it would be good for us to see that style," Gallagher said. "We play a lot more physical game. I guess it's the football in us."