BOULDER, Colo. – College rugby players are involved with a side for a couple years, and then move on. The five years of eligibility gives player’s time to develop as both rugby players and young men, but they also need a key figure to help them along their rugby path. The responsibility of helping young players grow falls on the head coach, and many first-year coaches across D1A Rugby are facing that challenge with new teams. Some took over great teams and continued to be great. Others quickly collected wins with their new squad, and some got started in building their struggling teams into great rugby programs.
The Big Ten welcomed two new coaches to its ranks: Chad Augeson and Ben Mateialona. Augeson took over the Minnesota Golden Gophers rugby club in January, and helped the young team to two wins.
“I am very happy with our season this fall,” said Augeson. “After taking over in January, there have certainly been bumps in the road, but we’ve found a way to overcome those and lay the foundation for future success. Both off and on the pitch our team has learned to work together towards the same goal of building a winning Big Ten rugby program.”
Minnesota lost a lot of talent over the offseason, but introduced some important new faces that will be productive for the team in the future; Gabe Cesarini and Jay Kim being two of them. Though the team went through some growing pains to start the season, they will enter the winter with a win streak.
“I think the biggest lesson learned by the team this fall is that if we implement and execute what we practice, we can be successful” said Augeson. “That requires a dedication and commitment that was highlighted by winning our final two matches of the year.”
The Gophers will continue to train throughout the offseason, and Augeson hopes to draw in recruits during that time, as well.
“My goal for UMN Men’s Rugby is to turn the rugby ‘club’ into a rugby “program,’” said Augeson.
Mateialona, the new Michigan State coach, was able to implement a culture of winning from the outset of the season, opening with a 65-5 win against Minnesota. The Spartans ended their season 3-4, like they did last season, but the performance of their side was impressive. They played very hard against Michigan, leading the Wolverines, 14-3, at one point, but weren’t able to keep up their defense in the second half. Their three-game gauntlet of Indiana, Ohio State, and Wisconsin would give any coach nightmares, but they rounded the year off with two great wins.
Blake Burdette, the new Penn State coach, experienced early success this season. He took to the State College campus Sept. 20, the day after the team had won its second conference match. Besides a loss to Army, Burdette and the Nittany Lions won the remainder of the matches on their schedule, including wins against Delaware, Iona, and eventual East Champion Kutztown.
Another coach that saw quick success was Colorado’s Luke Gross. Taking over the Buffaloes over the summer, Gross was able to instill a great atmosphere among the players, which led them to a win in their first match of the season, a surprising, 32-12, victory over Colorado State.
The Buffs faltered against No. 4 Utah and No. 9 Air Force, but the ultimate goal for Gross was to develop great young men off the pitch, as well, which he is doing so far in Boulder. The team will have the winter to prepare for a competitive match against No. 16 Arizona at the beginning of March.
The West also welcomed two other new coaches: Tom Goslau at New Mexico and Denny Merideth at Air Force. Goslau took over a Lobos program full of instability and a carousel of coaches in hopes to bring balance to the program. The team had few upperclassmen, so the freshmen and sophomores had to step up in a big way.
One of the biggest lessons this team can learn from is their match with the Indigenous Australian Invitational Rugby U20 team. The cultural experience brought the Lobos a great rugby experience, and gave them insight into what it takes to be a great rugby player. Goslau will continue to build this program through the future, and his young players look to be dedicated to building this side to become competitive in the West.
Air Force won the West last season, but lost longtime Head Coach Joe Muehlbauer. That hole was filled with Denny Merideth, who also brought along former Eagles Paul Emerick and James Paterson to help the team progress. The team took a few weeks to get accustomed to the new style of play implemented by the new coaches, but was able to snag two wins in the first three matches. The Zoomies played their best rugby of the season against No. 4 Utah, giving the Utes their toughest match of the season.
“The team is young and enthusiastic; our first 15s only has two seniors and the depth chart includes a significant number of freshmen with fantastic potential,” said Merideth. “The team is committed to regaining a dominance at the national level. The near-term goals are to build consistency in the fundamentals, compete against tough competition, and play within the spirit of rugby.”
The Zoomies will spend their winter working on conditioning and rugby skills before their challenging spring schedule. They will start with scrimmage sessions with both the Denver Barbarians and the Glendale Raptors, followed by matches with Clemson, Life, BYU, Cal, Central Washington, and a tour to New Zealand over spring break. The future of Air Force rugby looks to be very bright with Merideth at the helm, and looks to play at a level of rugby that rivals the best in the nation.
The other military academy in D1A also experienced a coaching change over the summer, as Matt Sherman took the helm at Army West Point. The Cadets surprised many when they won the Rugby East title last season, but had many changes over the offseason. Losing Captain Collum McGee was a challenge, but they also lost their head coach, Mike Mahan. The addition of Sherman, former director of rugby at Stanford, proved to be a great hire for the Black Knights.
“West Point is one of the most unique and special places I’ve ever been,” Sherman said. “The caliber and ambition of these young men is astounding. They embrace challenge and struggle.”
“What we did well the first five games was improve steadily and put in some very strong performances,” said Sherman. “On the flip side, we had a very poor game against Iona, a big regression from where we had been a week before, and while we got better after that game, we struggled as we closed out the fall to regain the form or rate of improvement we had been achieving earlier.
“Our No. 1 objective going forward will be to return not only to the form we had mid-way through the semester, but the rate of improvement we were achieving week to week.”
Developing a great rugby program can be tough for a new coach, but Merideth and Sherman have to account for the other activities of their players. Students at the military academies have a rigid and busy schedule, and the coaches need to find a way to appropriate the time available for rugby the best they can.
“Cadets have a very packed and rigid schedule,” said Sherman. “It’s an overwhelming challenge, but one they learn to operate through on a daily basis. Here you need to be more aware, mindful, and flexible with the activities of the Corp of Cadets.”
All new coaches saw success this season, whether it was building a program or thrusting a team up the Canterbury D1A Top 20 rankings. Now that the fall season is over, these coaches can fully implement their own style of rugby during the winter, training their players to succeed. Rugby at these schools is in the hands of these coaches, and, with the progression seen this season, the future is promising.