BOULDER, Colo. – A 55-0 victory over West Virginia moved Iona College to 3-1 in Rugby East, and turned enough heads to thrust the Gaels into the Canterbury D1A Top 20 for the first time in program history. The impressive shutout over the Mountaineers wasn’t a statement of the team’s arrival into the upper echelon of college rugby’s very best, but rather a measure of the team’s progress since joining Rugby East last fall.
Iona’s 2014 inclusion into the east coast’s premier college rugby conference was an acknowledgement that the team’s new head coach, Bruce McLane, was a tremendous hire. The Gaels weren’t exactly juggernauts of their former league in the Empire Conference, but with McLane steering Iona’s ship, Rugby East saw potential in the Gaels.
“We joined Rugby East because we needed the week-in, week-out pressure to learn how to behave consistently like winners as we have no easy games,” McLane said.
Iona received a taste of Rugby East in McLane’s first semester on campus in the spring of 2013. The Gaels took on an Army squad that recently returned to the pitch following a suspension. The result was a 73-0 shellacking by West Point.
“The biggest challenge when I got to Iona was to get the players to understand what ‘good’ rugby actually is, and then convincing them to buy into doing what it took to reach that level,” McLane recalled. “After the 73-0 loss, they got the picture.”
Even with the wakeup call delivered by Army, Iona was still a bit shell-shocked last fall in Rugby East competition. In its first season in D1A Rugby, McLane threw several freshmen into the fire, including in key positions. The Gaels played with tremendous heart, but scuffled to a 2-4 record. This year, Iona has already picked up three wins while fellow Rugby East newcomers Buffalo, St. Bonaventure, and West Virginia are each looking for a first win.
Still, McLane and his staff don’t think the bottom half of the conference is that far off from picking off a few wins of their own.
“We’re all on a similar page, Iona just had some fortunate bounces go our way,” McLane suggested. “We all knew we were going into a cauldron, and Iona won a few games against teams on the lower end of the table, but other new members performed better than Iona against some of the higher-ranked teams.”
The Gaels still haven’t knocked off Army, Kutztown, or Penn State, but they did go toe to toe with eventual Rugby East Champion Army last fall. Just six months after being hammered by 73 points, the Gaels went to West Point and gave the Black Knights everything they could handle in a 26-19 defeat.
This fall, Iona opened conference play with a loss to No. 10 Wheeling Jesuit, but have since reeled off three consecutive wins while only allowing 10 points.
Several of the players McLane was forced to lean on last year as freshmen have matured into impact players as sophomores, including Mike Marino, Michael Marro and Michael Scarcella. However, it’s been a group of senior holdovers that have been the key to Iona’s turnaround.
“Out captains John D’Allara and Andrew Rossi, as well as Brandon Wynne, have really led by example,” McLane described. “They represent exactly what I want an Iona student to be when they participate in rugby.”
The rise from Empire Conference bottom feeders to D1A Rugby’s Top 20 hasn’t been carried on the shoulders of the players alone, though. McLane is quick to spread the gratitude to his many assistant coaches, the student body of Iona who produce match film and operate the scoreboard for the team, and of course the school’s administration.
“We have tremendous support from Tyler Cardinal, Rick Cole, and Brian Beyrer of the Iona Athletic Department,” McLane boasted. “They work very hard to be extremely generous with field space and the resources we receive to train.”
So, how far can this collaborative effort in New Rochelle, N.Y., take the Iona Rugby Club?
“We can be as good as anyone – it just takes work,” prescribed McLane. “Teams like Saint Mary’s, Life, Davenport, and Lindenwood are all proof of that.”
The next step in Iona’s journey is a stiff one – an Oct. 11 contest against seventh-ranked Kutztown. Regardless of Sunday’s result versus the Golden Bears, the Iona Gaels are certainly a team on the rise.