While the sun beamed down on Stagg Field on April 16, the Springfield College men’s rugby team had one game left to qualify for nationals.
As time ticked away, holding onto a 33-12 lead against Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), the final whistle blew.
And then the season-long goal became reality. For the second time in program history, the Pride are headed to nationals for sevens – a variant spring season where seven players are playing, opposed to the usual 15. The organization has been around since 1892, but has skyrocketed to success in recent years.
“It was the greatest coaching moment of my career so far,” said head coach Luke Salls.
After the tournament, junior captain Owen Coderre hoisted the trophy while saying, “It’s too easy.”
He meant it, as the Pride went 5-0 on the day while Coderre was named “Man Of The Tourney.”
Salls, a former high school All-American and Division I recruit, has taken the program under his wing over the last two years. He has translated his love and comprehension for playing the game at Springfield himself to the coaching position.
“His knowledge base, as far as rugby goes, is ridiculous,” junior Carlo Frunzio said. “A lot of it comes down to him. As far as understanding how rugby works from the player’s perspective, he 100 percent gets it.”
Heading into qualifiers, Salls told his team, “Leave nothing left. If we don’t win, we don’t play,” he said. “That is the most intense and true statement I could have ever made.”
Sophomore Ajae Olsen attested to the level of skill that the team has exhibited throughout the season.
“We played awesome rugby,” Olsen said. “It is 100 percent a testament to both our work ethic and coach. Everyone is ecstatic that our efforts have led to the opportunity to compete on the national level.”
Heading into this weekend’s national championship tournament, the Pride enter as underdogs – a team that snuck in under the radar to many.
“I think we are going to turn some heads,” Salls said. “I think they will be surprised with the changes we make, and athletically, we are there.”
The Pride will be matched up against nationally-ranked teams they have not seen before, with most of their rosters containing all upperclassmen – and maybe the occasional first-year.
“We have been watching film,” Frunzio said. “A lot of it coming into this weekend is just recovery.”
For the Pride, they will try to remain unphased by any rankings or names of big teams.
“We all know we deserve to be here,” Olsen said. “We can compete against any team we face – it does not matter who we play.”
Adding to the equation, the Pride have five first-years rostered of the 13 players going. For some, this season is their first time ever playing the game.
“It is crazy how far the boys are picking up,” Frunzio said. “We have some real athletes.”
One first-year, Aidan Gallagher, debuted in the NEWCRC Nor’easter Tournament on April 8, where he walked away being named “Man Of The Tourney.” Any spectator would think he was a veteran with solid tackling and field command.
With the tournament weekend around the corner, Salls wants the team to hold true to its core values.
“We really just have to remember what we know and what works,” he said. “The players already know they are capable of becoming national champions.”
Setting all nerves aside on such a big stage, the Pride know they have a chance to make some noise.
“This is where moments of greatness will happen,” Salls said. “This is where we will show up.”
Photo Courtesy Springfield College Men’s Rugby