Wheeling Jesuit continues to raise profile

D1A Rugby: Wheeling Jesuit continues to raise profile
Photo Credit: WJU Athletics

BOULDER, Colo. – Wheeling Jesuit rugby is thought of as a relatively new rugby program, but most don’t know about its storied past. Formed in 1964, the Cardinal rugby squad played in Eastern Rugby Union until the mid-1990s. The team played alongside Boston College, Virginia, Princeton, and Penn State to build up its rugby program, and even had a player included in an issue of Sports Illustrated: Kevin Keegan, who was recognized for earning Most Valuable Player in a tournament in Virginia.

The program folded in the 90s, but the determination from a group of alumni helped resurrect the program as a varsity sport in 2012. Wheeling Jesuit’s rugby program was resumed under Head Coach Eric Jerpe and, with 23 players, was able to post a 10-4-1 record in its first season back. Now, under Head Coach Tal Bayer, the Cardinals are battling to become a top team in Rugby East.

This season, Wheeling Jesuit is ranked 10th in the nation, even with three losses marring its record. After starting 2-0 with wins against Cincinnati and Iona, the Cardinals dropped three out of their next four to Penn State, Army, and Kutztown.

“The losses to Penn State, Army, and Kutztown were certainly disappointing,” said Bayer. “We had our sights set on upsetting and surprising a few teams this season.

“Some of the challenges in our games stems from both our coach and player transition. Part of the challenge from my end was figuring out what works with this team and adjusting my coaching style accordingly. From a player’s perspective it has been a growing and learning process. As our guys mature as players and adults, they are beginning to recognize they have a lot of work to do on and off the field if they want to be at their personal best and guide our team onward and upward. I think people recognize the growth and improvement {of} our program and we are no longer the underdog or unknown team.”

However disappointing those losses were, the college rugby landscape keeps the Cardinals in the top 10 in the nation. They posted dominating wins over St. Bonaventure, Buffalo, and Loyola this season, as well as a close win against a quality Delaware rugby program. The building of a good program, especially one that is able to rise to the top as fast at Wheeling Jesuit has, starts with good players, and recruiting those players.

Bayer has been a huge draw for many players, and has helped the Cardinals draw some amazing talent. Before coaching at Wheeling Jesuit, Bayer was the head coach at Hyde/Perry Street Prep School, where he built one of the best high school programs in the nation. He was able to build multiple relationships up and down the east coast, which would later help him in his recruiting efforts. Bayer has ties with high school coaches, attends regional all-start tournaments and rugby camps, and uses social media to keep a constant presence on players who he wants playing at Wheeling Jesuit. This has helped the team bring in some amazing talent on the pitch, including two men who have bright futures in the rugby world.

Cecil Rich was one of Coach Bayer’s players at Pride Prep in Washington, D.C., where he earned All-American honors. He was invited to the United States Olympic Committee’s Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., to try out for the Junior All-American Under-20 team. He did not make the team, but has been having a good season and is focused on a future with the Eagles.

Rich’s teammate, Peter Malcolm, is close to becoming part of the USA Eagles. He took part in the Halloween Rugby 7s, where he tried to impress Men’s Eagles Sevens Head Coach Mike Friday before the selections for the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games are made. Malcolm, who has played at Wheeling Jesuit since it was reinstated in 2012, has helped the team rise from a Division II school to one of the top 10 in the country.

“I was really attracted to the idea of being a part of starting the program and growing with it,” said Malcolm. “We went from being in Division II my freshman year to ranked 10th in D1A this year. The growth has been amazing and growing with the program has been the best time of my life. The quality of rugby we’re putting out now is something to be proud of.”

Malcolm graduates in May of next year, at which time he will likely accept an invitation to work with the national team in Chula Vista. He has been working out using a remote training schedule, and has his eyes set on becoming an Eagle. Before he does that, he plans on getting his side to the playoffs.

“My goals for the rest of the year are to continue to develop in the USA sevens program and to get Jesuit into the playoffs,” said Malcolm. “We really need a marquee win in [the] spring to solidify our spot in the playoffs, so we have to go out and chase that. I want to leave the team on a positive note, winning a championship, and hopefully having the rest of my teammates joining me as All Americans.

“We’ve got some real quality players coming through, guys like Cecil Rich, Andrew Waggoner, Hugh Mcallister, and Aaron Gray who are going to be names in USA college rugby and I want to help those guys reach their potential.”

Wheeling Jesuit closes out its Rugby East season against West Virginia, and will then head into the winter. The team hopes to get some sevens work in before having to balance sevens and 15s in the spring. The West Virginia winter can be vicious, and the effect can be felt by the Wheeling Jesuit team.

“I love the game, many of our players love it, but it is a challenge trying to balance the two in the spring,” said Bayer. “Especially when it is mostly snow and ice well into late March here in West Virginia.

“Last year we trained starting in January – outside – in 20- to 30-degree weather in an attempt to prepare for the Las Vegas Invitational tournament. We made the best of it, but it is a real challenge getting prepared for sevens or 15s in the spring when frostbite is a real possibility during our practice sessions. We monitor and follow the instruction of our athletic trainer, but it is hard to maximize our preparation in those type of conditions. Balancing that focus with the potential of D1A Playoffs on the horizon and the struggle only becomes more real. The programs who have successfully balanced both spring 15s and sevens typically are from warmer climates. I think a lot can be learned from those programs, but not quite sure how to get around the weather situation in the winter and spring just yet. If anyone has any viable solutions, I am all ears.”

Coach Bayer and his slew of young talent has made this Wheeling Jesuit team into one of the best in the country. As these Cardinals grow, they will become only more dangerous, and the rest of the East will need to watch their backs Losing Malcolm at the end of the season will hurt, but with the amount of young players already vying for spots in the starting 15, Wheeling Jesuit should continue its climb in the East.