BOULDER, Colo. – Rugby in America is growing by leaps and bounds at all age levels, and that includes the high school ranks. With more and more players crafting their game while qualifying themselves for college enrollment, it has become increasingly important for college rugby coaches to evaluate high school talent and sell them on their respective universities.
When it comes to NCAA sports like football and basketball, coaches are commonly praised for their abilities to recruit student-athletes that fit their style and schemes. A college rugby coach’s prowess on the recruiting trails is merely an afterthought in fans’ minds.
The number of colleges offering scholarships for rugby players continues to rise. With the increase of schools gaining financial support from its administrations, coaches’ responsibilities to recruit high-performance athletes eager to train in a varsity setting grows.
Since Lindenwood University’s inaugural 2011-12 season, the liberal arts institution has provided the rugby team with grants for its students, while fully funding the team.
“We are the polar opposite of a lot of teams because we are fully funded,” Lindenwood Head Coach JD Stephenson said. “We don’t have to beg and scrap and fundraise, which a lot of teams do and it has traditionally been the model. But I think more programs are taking off like ours, so the gap is starting to close between the traditional powerhouses and the smaller schools.”
The far superior financial backing that schools, like Lindenwood, receive allows the coaches to span the entire country offering enticing scholarships to the country’s very best players.
“Our reach extends to pretty much everywhere in the U.S.,” said Stephenson. “We are looking for the best talent.”
It’s apparent when speaking with the Director of Rugby Operations at Lindenwood that he and his coaching staff are not only looking for big, strong, fast kids with impressive ball handling skills, but intelligent students who fit the programs culture.
“We want kids who want to come and actively be a part of it,” Stephenson said. “You want kids who come in on day one and graduate as seniors in year four, and have loved every minute of it.”
Lindenwood’s search for the next generation of Lions has led them to 18 signees who will join the team this fall, including High School All-American Wes Parker from Louisville, Ky., and AIG Men’s Junior All-American standout James Gannon from Chicago, Ill.
Although the list consists of several decorated high school rugby players, Stephenson and his staff still keep an eye out for big-bodied athletes without rugby backgrounds.
“I’m all for bringing in a guy who is a blank canvas and a project, especially wrestlers,” said Stephenson. “The crossover athletes are awesome. Soccer players have good spatial awareness, basketball players have good hand-eye coordination.”
Lindenwood isn’t the only school with a keen eye for crossover athletes. Arkansas State, a program known for bringing in players with a wealth of rugby experience prior to stepping foot on the Jonesboro, Ark., campus, successfully recruited former Oklahoma State wrestler Blace Walser.
Walser was an All-State competitor in football with just one year of rugby experience prior to joining the Cowboys wrestling team. Seen as a potential loose forward or center, Walser was intrigued by Arkansas State because of the rugby program’s commitment to being the very best.
“It seemed like a really great fit,” said Walser. “They work out every morning and they practice five days a week. It’s a real varsity atmosphere where everyone is on the same page, and everybody really wants to win.”
Still, the university-funded college rugby programs are few and far between. A lot of teams continue to rely on on-campus recruiting of athletes with zero background in the sport in order to build depth and hopefully find a few diamonds in the rough.
“I would go to the rec center, the weight room and all of the fraternities,” said Rich Cortez, who was Wyoming’s Head Coach from 1995-2013. “I would find the biggest guys, take down their information and call them until they would show up for a practice. The on-campus recruiting efforts alone were nearly a fulltime job.”
There is no doubt that schools like Wyoming, with little administrative backing and minimal in-state recruiting options, are at a disadvantage in comparison to the fully-funded rugby programs.
Even as elite teams begin to separate themselves from the pack like Lindenwood, with economic and competitive advantages, and Saint Mary’s, which is surrounded by the tremendous high school talent in northern California and led by two of the game’s best coaches in Tim O’Brien and Johnny Everett, there is still fight left in the little dogs of college rugby.
“It takes a core group of student-athletes to buy in early on in their college career,” Cortez explained. “Then you work to spread that commitment and discipline through the entire roster. If a higher level of dedication remains within the club over a number of years, the stars can align and a special group of upperclassmen can give you a fighter’s chance against the very best in the country. However, without dedicated recruiting efforts and the funds to support the efforts, those chances will continue to dwindle.”
It will not be surprising to see the trend of funded programs with full-time, on-campus coaches lead teams deep into the D1A playoffs. After all, these are the teams with the most resources to offer ready-made high school rugby players. Recruitment has become a major part of programs’ successes, and its importance in running a college rugby program will only expand.