It was a quiet night on campus last Thursday as the Men’s Rugby team took over Stagg Field for a serious and physical practice that pushed each player to their physical and mental limit. Whether it was full-field sprints, tackling drills, or going over game situations, it was just another day at the office for this team. The practice was in preparation for a game against Salve Regina this Saturday at 7 p.m. on Stagg Field. The winner of that game earns a trip to USA Rugby’s National tournament. If Springfield College wins, it will be the first Nationals berth in school history.
The team is ranked 47th in the country in Division 2 this year, won the NEWCRC cup, and has amassed an undefeated record. That makes them the only undefeated team currently playing at Springfield College this fall. This is thanks to outstanding fundamental and physical play in the defensive phase, great communication and explosiveness in the offensive phase, and outstanding upperclassmen leadership.
With the way this season has unfolded so far, this team could go down as one of the greatest in Springfield College history. All while being a club sport, at a school with a relatively low student population that a majority of which plays a varsity sport.
However, this program has come a long way to get to where it is right now.
“I think a problem with the program in the past was the seniors didn’t welcome people in and they didn’t represent rugby very well,” said coach James Collins, a native of Ireland. “They were here just to drink and fight, and that’s not what rugby is all about.”
With the help of great leadership from the rising upperclassmen and the guidance of Head Coach Jon Maneen and Assistant Coach James Collins, the program has started to represent what Collins says rugby is all about.
“Unlike the past, these upperclassmen are great and very welcoming to newcomers.” said Collins.
Someone who has experienced this sense of welcoming first hand is sophomore Erik Carnazza.
“The seniors have been helpful in my development in Rugby,” said Carnazza. “They have helped me in terms of where to be, what to do, and just how to play the game in general.”
One of those senior leaders has been co-captain Patrick Stefanski, formally known during his freshman year playing rugby as “The Bill Belichick of Springfield College Rugby”. The name is thanks to his high rugby IQ that was put to work scouting opponents during pre-game warm ups.
“Even while playing his heart-out during a match, I could hear from the sidelines as Pat was offering feedback to his teammates,” said former coach Dan Jaffe. “ Having Pat on the field was like having your own personal coach guide you through a match.”
The foundation of a great program definitely starts with great leaders, but teams are only successful in the win/loss columns when those leaders aren’t only great people, but great players as well.
“Jared Bean has been an important player for us,” said co-captain Jay Bonti. “He’s a really mean ball carrier that you don’t want to hit at full speed.”
Bean is the current leader on the team in tries with ten. He has been able to find success by mixing his great size with speed and the use of solid fundamentals.
“We also have specific plays for Carmine Agostino so he can take his man one on one,” said captain Patrick Stefanski. “That’s how much of a force he is.”
The list of offensive standouts continues with Brian Perry, “As a ball carrier he is fierce, he also has a huge stiff arm,” said captain Jay Bonti. “Physically he is not a big guy, but he plays like he is big.”
However, teams aren’t great without a great defense. As the old saying goes, defense wins championships, and this team’s defensive fundamentals are great.
“Someone like Jeremy Phillips has probably been our defensive All-star this year,” said senior captain Patrick Stefanski. “He wants his man to get the ball and he has been able to make every tackle that comes his way.”
Stefanski, who is now in his second year as a captain for the team, is another integral part to this team defensively
“If Pat wraps his arms around you, you’re going down,” said captain Jay Bonti. “He also has very high rugby IQ, and he is much tougher than people give him credit for.”
One of the things that fill out a great team is the ability to not rebuild, but to reload after seniors graduate. A team isn’t complete without someone that isn’t afraid to step into the figurative empty pair of shoes that are left by the previous class. One player that filled an empty pair of shoes this year has been Matt Ryan.
“Last year he was one of the first players off the bench,” said Patrick Stefanski. “He has really surprised me with the looks and decisions he has made this year. He has great field vision.”
Although the team is undefeated through the regular season, many players feel as though their best rugby as a team has yet to be played.
“We haven’t lost at home in two or three years,” said Jay Bonti. “Although we haven’t lost yet, I feel we still haven’t played our best rugby.”
Fellow captain Patrick Stefanski was quick to agree.
“Our goal this year was to win the cup, which we did,” said Stefanski. “I still think what’s left now is our best rugby. If we could have that moment of us clicking as a team on a national level, that would top off senior year more than anything.”
That opportunity to showcase the team’s talent on the national level will come if the team beats Salve Regina this weekend. With a win they will earn a spot in USA Rugby’s National Tournament and would become the first team in school history to do so.
This team does have a history with Salve Regina. The last time the two teams played was two years ago in the Beast of the East tournament, in a game the Pride lost on penalty kicks. Some members of the team are still feeling the effects of that gut-wrenching loss.
“There are about ten people that played back then that are still here,” said Stefanski. “For those remaining we still have a sour taste. I hate to use the word revenge, but it is a revenge game.
This team understands that they have to be on top of their game to succeed. Not only against Salve Regina, but if they win, in Nationals as well.
“If we just play 100% towards our game plan I don’t think we can be stopped,” said Collins. “I think we have to have our minds right and be ready to compete if we want to succeed. If we can do that against Salve, or any other opponent, I don’t see us losing.
This team wants to leave a legacy for years to come. They want to not only be remembered for being a great team, but great people
“We would like this team to be remembered as one of the best teams every time we stepped on the field,” said Patrick Stefanski. “We don’t want to be known as the little team that could.”
When asked what word this year’s team should be associated with, Bonti said “Comradery, we are each other’s support system. Whether we get down early or not, we aren’t your stereotypical rugby team.
This team definitely has the firepower, leadership, and rugby knowledge to not only advance to Nationals, but to succeed there. Clear your schedules for this Saturday and come out to support them as they move into the next phase of their successful season against Salve Regina.