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Pushing back: A look into Stanford rugby’s successful season

For a program that has been playing continuously on Stanford’s campus since 1906, Stanford rugby has been delegated to a very understated niche on campus since its loss of varsity status in 1977. Although its history is rife with significant names like that of standout quarterback Don Bunce, runs to the Final Four and other unforgettable moments, the reality of being a club sport on a campus full of successful NCAA Division I programs has meant that its successes and failures in recent history have all gone relatively unnoticed.

(SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

Stanford women’s rugby will be seeking a return to the national championship game as the host to the national tournament and a perennial threat to contend for the title. (SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

But with the USA Rugby National Championship series set to take place at Stanford over the last weekend for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight matchups of the Western Regional, both the men’s and women’s teams stood in a unique position this season. For the first time in recent memory, both teams stood as conference champions at the same time with the championships both hosted at Stanford, giving both squads the opportunity to make deep playoff runs on their home facility.

Although the teams have seen their fair share of ups and downs — with the men having particularly been subjected to a deep rut over the last several seasons and the women having endured the pain of several playoff runs coming to untimely ends — this season has seemed to mark the beginning of a significant upswing for both programs. The men are set to establish a precedent of success and leadership that they will look to carry them forward in the next several years, while the women are primed to use an indomitable spirit of unity and one of the deepest rosters in memory to finally overcome the hump and return to the top of the women’s rugby world.

***

“While we were losing last year, it was kind of funny because you would see how the other club sports were doing, and I think we were by far the worst club sport in terms of win-loss,” said senior captain Dan Agness of the men’s team. “Everyone at this school is so used to killing it; it’s understandable that guys would want to quit after something like that. Everybody here is used to being awesome and exemplary, and then to come in and join a team that’s anything but exemplary — it’s hard.”

For the men’s team, the lack of a focused program has hurt the program’s ability to stay competitive over the last two seasons, with players more free to give the team as much or as little commitment as they wanted without fear of harsh consequences, and an unavoidable amount of inexperience with rugby that warranted a greater focus on individual and team fundamentals rather than on overarching strategy during practices.

And it was more than that; as a club sport on campus, there wasn’t any great incentive for team members to sacrifice other elements of their Stanford experience and education to spend their time on a team that would get blown out by margins of 60 points week after week.

“We absolutely recognize that we’re a club sport,” Agness said. “Sometimes, people will grumble when coach makes a morning session that we thought would be pretty quick into something intensive.”

After the conclusion of a winless conference season in 2013, it was clear that a change needed to happen in order to get the team out of its rut and build the program back into prominence. And although there were misgivings at times, the decision was made to drop the program from Division I-A to Division I-AA in order to give the team an opportunity to re-establish a winning culture rather than having losing be the status quo week after week.

Thus, with higher expectations of on-field success for the team in 2014 at a new level of competition, the focus of the program shifted to developing that new culture and making it a sustainable team spirit both this season and into the coming seasons. The building of that new paradigm started with the upperclassman leadership — Agness among them — that had stuck with the program through the trying seasons and was thus ready to lead the team in a new direction.

“I think we were a young team — very few upperclassmen [in the past],” said head coach Matt Sherman. “I think we struggled to get the culture right on and off the field, but the senior players and leadership [this season] have done a fantastic job of motivating the whole team, and I think the whole team has done a great job of responding and building a really strong team culture that wants to work hard for each other, and the result has been fantastic.”

“When I got here as a freshman, we didn’t have a coach; we were in the hiring process and got coach Sherman,” Agness added. “The belief that he’s putting us on the right track and even after last year — a really brutal season — we kind of all knew that it wasn’t permanent. With the right reconstruction, the right coaching and continuing to get the right guys out here, we weren’t going to stay in the basement.”

After a meeting among the leadership of the team at the beginning of the season to establish that push in the new direction, a strong non-conference showing to open the season gave the members of the team the spark that it needed to become more focused, more united and more involved in the effort to push the program back into relevance.

Because even through the struggles of seasons past, the issue hadn’t been that the team had been putting the wrong people on the field or that it had been performing at a lower level than its competition. Those might have been contributing factors, sure, but the main issue was that the team had lost its confidence, drive and identity.

This season, with the spark that the new leadership brought, as well as the contributions of the returning team members and a talented freshman class, the team got off to a faster start with a hard-fought win over the University of San Diego and narrow losses to tough non-conference matchups in Santa Clara and Oregon State that served to remind them that they were able to compete with those contenders. After that, the team blew out San Francisco State and San Diego State to kick off the heart of conference play, and the ball was rolling.

“You get like that little boost of confidence in the beginning, then you remember, ‘oh, yeah, we could be pretty good,’” Agness said. “Because we’ve got good athletes out here who probably played below their athletic ability last season and got in a rut. Once you get that little boost to get out, we started to put it together and confidence was exponential in a lot of ways.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

The team caught a groove and went undefeated through both the conference season and the tournament — with a trip to Barbados in the middle, to boot. Victories over San Jose State and Chico State in the conference tournament gave the team a championship trophy, but more importantly, it gave the members of the team — both old and new — something tangible to hold on to, something to justify all of the time and effort that they put into the sport through all of the trials and tribulations of seasons past.

And with the national tournament approaching, the season gave the team success and momentum to build on as it hoped to extend its worst-to-first story to the national stage. After the success of the season, players were buying into the efforts more than ever before — watching their diets or giving practices extra effort — in the hopes that they could be part of a special ending to an already-special season.

“The excitement’s definitely building,” Agness said. “I think everyone’s starting to recognize how much bigger this game is than any of our other ones.”

“As a senior, [a playoff run] would validate all of the time that I put in,” Agness added. “I missed a lot I’d like to do — none of us went to Coachella and a lot of us thought it would have been cool to go — you miss a fair amount of stuff. It would also show that we made the right decision in deciding to come down to this league…it would set the platform for perennially making it back to this level.”

***

There are very few other — if any — sports in the country that make women hit each other in a full-contact sport. But at Stanford women’s rugby, they do it every day. And over the last few seasons, it’s clear that they’ve gotten quite good at it.

“Tackling people is a new concept for a lot of girls,” said Aly Gleason, one of the captains on the women’s team. “Especially for the smaller girls, it’s really hard to wrap your head around the fact that this girl might have 50 pounds on me — or even more — and I have to go tackle her…but once that mental switch is flipped in your head, you’re fine.”

(SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

The women’s team practices for its playoff matchup against Texas A&M. (SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

On the other side of the program, the women are also seeking a turnaround — but not as drastic of a turnaround as the men’s team exhibited over its last two seasons. The women have been perennial national title contenders over the last several years and will again be looking to return to the highest stage of collegiate women’s rugby after they were bounced from last year’s tournament in the Final Four and had to settle for third place.

With all of the talent and the tradition of winning that has been developed over the last few years, it has very much been a case of national title or bust for this year’s team, particularly the seniors, who have come heart-wrenchingly close on several occasions and have been part of consistent success but haven’t been able to close their grasp around the national title to show for it.

“It’s really hard to live on that edge,” Gleason said. “You pour your heart and soul into this team, and to come up just an inch short is really heartbreaking, but you also have to realize what you came from…Hopefully we put everything together and end on that positive note this year. This could be the year. I really think that.”

According to Gleason, the overwhelming factor that could contribute to this being “the year” is the increased depth, athleticism and knowledge of the game from all around the depth chart. And while talent alone cannot win a championship — teams from all around the country field skilled teams, after all — the unification of that talent into one effort that draws on the skill sets of all of those players has been almost unstoppable so far this season.

“I’d argue that in the first weeks, we had a lot of individual talent,” Gleason said. “We still had very skillful players, but we were a little disconnected. Now, we’re to the point where we’re really operating on a team level. We’ve taken those skills and really put them together to make the most successful game plan and take advantage of each person’s skill set.”

It speaks dividends about the success that this program is accustomed to when Gleason identifies a 19-5 victory over UC-Davis as the most difficult point during the season for the team and a moment that the team still uses as motivation moving forward.

And again, it’s just been that kind of a season for the team. The players are all fully aware of the lofty potential that they can recognize as a unit and that’s certainly manifested in their play down the stretch with yet another undefeated conference circuit, including a pair of victories in the conference tournament against San Jose State and Chico State to give them the conference title.

Through that journey, the team has grown closer due to a wide variety of shared experiences, from time spent watching television shows off the field to even a training camp with Navy SEALs that the team did together over spring break that taught players about facing adversity as a united corps.

“They want to make you absolutely miserable,” said Gleason with a laugh. “Your average SEAL training, I suppose…A lot of people struggled, and a lot of people learned about themselves and what kind of pressure they can actually take. You learn that if you rely on other people, you can do a lot more than you can individually.”

With those experiences under their belt, the women’s team was in familiar territory as the first two rounds of the national tournament approached on their home turf, with a relatively unknown commodity in Texas A&M awaiting them in the Sweet 16 to likely set up a duel with powerhouse BYU in the Elite Eight.

Regardless of what opponents lay ahead for them, though, all the team felt that it needed to do was focus on playing its style of rugby and have faith in its abilities — it’s worked well in the past, after all.

***

Eight minutes.

Eight minutes were all that separated Stanford men’s rugby from its first Final Four appearance in 16 seasons.

Senior Cam Bailey had put the Cardinal up on Arizona 24-22 with a late try, and all Stanford needed to do was hold on to its lead to book a date with Bowling Green in the national semifinal.

Stanford had already taken care of business against Oregon a round earlier to reach the Elite Eight in a hard-nosed 24-12 victory, and the players that had been sitting at home with a winless season under their belts just a year earlier were on the verge of immortalizing the season with an incredible worst-to-first comeback.

But Arizona had other ideas. It used its perimeter speed to get by the entire Stanford squad to score the decisive try and give itself a 27-24 lead, bringing a disheartening end to a promising playoff run.

However, even with the early exit from the tournament and the loss of a Final Four berth that seemed destined for the Cardinal for a few fleeting minutes, it would be a disservice to the team to not recognize the season for what it was — a remarkable turnaround that not only started to put Stanford men’s rugby back on the national radar, but a re-establishment of the team culture and its niche on campus that set a precedent for years to come.

“You always want to leave something better than you got it,” Agness remarked. “So for the senior class, which has really dwindled back to four or five guys, it’s cool to see that even if we get bounced in this next game, we’ve gone farther than we have in the past two years at least, and we’ve set a really solid foundation for growth in the next few years and for them to continue to return to this place.”

For the women, the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight simply offered business as usual: a resounding 78-5 blowout of Texas A&M before a tough 26-17 win over BYU to clinch yet another Final Four berth for the program.

Even though a tough matchup against American International will precede what would easily be the toughest challenge of the season in rugby giant Penn State, the team has certainly been here before and has experience dealing with the most trying of challenges as a unit this season. Now, it’s all about getting over the hump and carrying through to the finish when the final two rounds of the tournament take place on campus on May 9-10.

***

Club sports like rugby certainly don’t get as much attention or support from both the campus as a whole and from Stanford Athletics, making the program less organized and giving both players and coaches more responsibilities to maintain and advance the status quo year after year. However, the players on both teams definitely don’t always see that as a bad thing.

With a chuckle, Agness mentions that the pressure and the microscope that NCAA-recognized teams would be subjected to during tough seasons like those that the men’s team suffered through are essentially nonexistent in the club sports sphere, allowing failures to go more under the radar and limited to the sphere of the team. At the same time, when success is found, as has been the case this season, students on campus are quick to recognize it and give them support.

The status of being a club sport also gives the team a much larger sense of responsibility, because at that level, both coaches and players get as much out of the program as what they give it. Everybody on the team is there because he or she chooses to give the team the time and effort that he or she would give any other extracurricular activity on campus, meaning that the players all have a greater deal of emotional investment in the success of the program that they are all helping to maintain to a greater extent than they would for a varsity sport.

“You take into consideration on the club side that you are out here because you want to be out here — that makes practice that much more fun and that much more intense,” Gleason said. “When you embrace that mentality and you go out to practice, you realize that this is your goal — this is what I do, this is what I love and your heart really pours out in practice.”

And that’s what Stanford rugby has become over the last several seasons. While the women’s team has been more consistent in maintaining that mentality over the years and has seen the rewards and success that are almost inevitable for a talented team that buys into that mentality, the men’s team has also been able to return to the level at which more and more players are buying into the system because they not only enjoy the game, but also because they are motivated by the tangible success that the hard work that they have put in has brought them.

Of course, rugby isn’t your quintessential club sport on campus — with a strong base of alumni support, the program enjoys state-of-the-art facilities and structure that no other club sports can lay claim to in their respective spheres. However, that doesn’t diminish the importance of the players’ personal stakes in the health of the program at all, nor does it accentuate their sphere of influence on a campus that is largely ill-informed on the happenings of club sports.

And for the most part, Agness, Gleason and the teams are fine with that, because what’s most important for them isn’t filling up the stands game after game or getting everybody on campus abuzz about their latest victory — they understand that on campus and in the nation as a whole, rugby is definitely a niche sport. What is important for them is guiding a program that has meant so much to them over the course of their Stanford careers to a place where others in the future can enjoy the same experiences and thrills.

“Besides winning a national championship, what’s equally important to me is carrying on the rugby legacy and tradition of being the best culture on campus,” Gleason said. “I want this program to be successful forever and ever because it really has changed my life and it really has changed the lives of everyone on this team.”

In that regard, it’s hard to say that they haven’t succeeded this season.

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027@stanford.edu.

About Do-Hyoung Park

Do-Hyoung Park is the Head Copy Editor at The Stanford Daily. Even though he is finally able to get into R-rated movies now, he instead chooses to spend his time writing half the sports section every week. Do-Hyoung is a sophomore originally from Seoul, South Korea and raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota pursuing a major in chemical engineering. To contact him, please email him at dpark027 'at' stanford.edu.