Nakai Penny was teary-eyed as his Pen High Lakers rugby career ended in a 17-12 overtime loss to the Salmon Arm Gold in the AAA Okanagan Valley semifinal.
Penny began wiping away tears walking off the field after the hard-fought defeat at McNicoll Park May 8 as teammates wrapped their arms around him. Penny, who played four seasons on the Lakers said, “I played my heart out.”
Following the game, the Lakers huddled around coach Ken Sommerfeldt and team manager John Carboni. Sommerfeldt named Penny man of the match, something Sommerfeldt said would have been the case all season given Penny’s skills.
“There is no way that will not happen,” said Sommerfeldt of Penny, who has played on two provincial teams. “We decided that every game, we’d go beyond him and look for someone else.
“He’s such a dominant player. He’s just a joy to watch,” continued Sommerfeldt, who coached Penny his entire career and said he would get tingles to see him play professionally as he believes Penny can reach that level.
Teammate Sam Brown said Penny was a role model and is responsible for getting him to take on rugby two seasons ago.
“I know one day I’m going to be sitting on my couch watching some rugby on TV and I’m going to look up and see his face running a try,” said Brown. “I can guarantee that.”
In Brown’s first season, he used to panic with the ball and try to get it out. Penny taught him to tuck his shoulder down and run right through. Brown described Penny as very intense, but extremely supportive.
“Even if he’s yelling at you in a game and tells you that you really screwed up, he’s looking out for the entire team,” said Brown.
Heading into the season, Penny said there was “a ridiculous amount to learn” for his teammates. What excited him though was having a good time with his friends who joined the team. Penny enjoyed the year, but his highlight was a personal accomplishment.
“This season scoring four tries (in a single game), that was my personal record,” said Penny, who scored two before in a game. “I was beyond pumped on that.”
This spring and summer Penny intends to play for the Okanagan under-18 team and hopefully the provincial team again. In the fall, he will begin his UBC Thunderbird career. Penny said he is pumped about the next chapter in his life.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Penny, who plans to study kinesiology.
The Thunderbirds became interested in Penny following the under-17 Provincial Regional Championship. They like Penny’s character and attitude.
“You could just see the way he was so enthusiastic about playing the game,” said Langston.
The Thunderbirds plan on using Penny as a role player in their under-20 program, which they use to develop potential varsity athletes. Langston said they like keeping players in Penny’s age group against opponents within the same age range. Based on performance and development, they move up to the senior team.
“Right away when I first saw him it was really clear that he was raw, but athletically gifted,” said Langston. “As a coach you almost seek out to have players like this. There haven’t been too many coaches trying to teach them different things.”
Penny showed Thunderbirds forward coach Curry Hitchborn that he learned quickly from the coaches input. Langston also likes the way Penny plays defensively.
“It’s physical dominance in a tackle situation,” said Langston. “This kid, we refer to kids like this as a nail. He has all the physical attributes to dominate for sure. Fantastic kid. We are really excited to have him on board.”