It might as well have been Rodney Dangerfield boarding the plane bound for Harare, Zimbabwe, nearly four weeks ago instead of the Highland High rugby team.

Headed to play in the inaugural World Schools Rugby Championship, Highland was given as much respect by its 11 other competitors as the popular comedian usually receives. That is to say - none. The team was expected to do as well in the tournament as the U.S. soccer team did in World Cup soccer, which was dead last.When the players and coaches returned home Tuesday from their African trip though, the rugby world had a new opinion of Highland, that of international power.

Highland claimed the bronze medal in the tournament thanks to a thrilling 25-24 victory over Tupou of Tonga in the third-place match. It was considered a surprising performance by the Americans, even to the players and coaches themselves.

"Third best in the world is an absolute fairy tale ending," said Highland coach Larry Gelwix, who anticipates his team will be invited back when the biennial tournament is played again. "It gave us such huge credibility and established Highland as an international team."

Realistically, Gelwix and his players knew that placing high would be a tough chore. After all, Highland was coming from a country known more for its international prowess in curling than in rugby.

It didn't help matters that the tournament was being played out of season for Highland. Gelwix felt a lack of strong practice and competition before the tournament contributed to Highland's 29-20 loss in its opening match to host Prince Edward.

"We could have and should have won. We were clearly the better team," said Gelwix. "It was depressing to not have our fate in our own hands."

Highland rebounded from the loss by defeating Ysgol Glantaf of Wales 31-12, and then caught a break when Ysgol Glantaf knocked off Prince Edward 15-13. With each team in its pool having a 1-1 record, Highland won the tie-breaker by having scored the most trys in its two matches and advanced to the semifinals with the winners of the other three pools.

Highland didn't even get a sniff of a possible championship berth, however, as eventual tournament champion Kelston of New Zealand easily won their semifinal meeting 59-3. The score wasn't too bad considering the fact Kelston had beaten an earlier opponent 81-14.

"They were in a class by themselves," Gelwix said of Kelston. "It was a humbling experience, but the kids bounced back."

Against Tupou, a team considered the second strongest after Kelston, Highland trailed the entire match until Morgan Scalley scored a try on the final play after time had expired.

"We were flooded by people coming up to us the next two days," said Gelwix. "The players were constantly asked for their autographs. That's a pretty fun experience for high school kids."

Gelwix felt the two things that stood out most about the tournament's play were the sophistication and faster pace of the matches.

"They were eye-openers," he said. "But the players made the defensive and offensive adjustments they needed to play at the highest levels in the world."

Now that his younger players know what to expect, Gelwix feels just making a good showing won't be enough at the next tournament.

"We'll accept the bronze for now, but we'll goal for gold in 2000."