SLU Rugby overcomes odds to win second place at Nationals


Amidst the downpour of Tropical Storm Bonnie, the SLU Rugby team endured a bittersweet loss in the finals of the D-II 7s National Championship against the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The rain-soaked contest, which took place on May 29 in Cary, North Carolina and was broadcast nationwide via, may have dashed SLU’s dreams of a national title, but it garnered the squad a silver medal and cemented their claim as the second-best college rugby team in the nation.

The journey to Nationals was a long one, and inclement weather wasn’t the only adversity SLU had to contend with along the way. Although SLU punched their ticket to Nationals back in April after winning a tournament in Spring Hill, Mississippi, for a while it was uncertain if team was able to actually afford the 14-hour trip to North Carolina. Limited school funding meant the club had to find other means to pay for travel expenses. Friends, family and alumni contributed over $5,000 to a GoFundMe account set up by the team entitled “Paving the Road to Nationals.” The players managed to secure the rest by assisting the University with the removal of dorm room furniture.

The team has endured emotional hardships as well. In the past year, SLU Rugby suffered two unexpected losses. Sam Binz and Paul Monahan, both former players and graduates of the Class of 2013, tragically passed away within just months of each other. In a Facebook post after the final game of the tournament, coach Justin Whitton dedicated the team’s accomplishment to their memories.

When SLU arrived in North Carolina on Thursday, May 26, they were just one of 16 teams, each with hopes of winning a national title. The field included a former 7s National Champion, Principia, as well as the reigning three-time 15s National Champions, Minnesota-Duluth. According to some rugby pundits, SLU wasn’t even considered a contender to emerge from pool play, let alone compete for the national title.

But SLU surprised their critics by securing their advancement to the quarterfinals early on, with a pair of wins against Wisconsin-Eau Claire and UMass-Lowell, winning 28-12 and 14-7 respectively. With their advancement guaranteed, the team elected to rest its starting side’s strength for the third game and ended the group stage with a 35-0 loss to Lindenwood-Belleville, who would also advance from the group stage.

In the quarterfinals, SLU would face Salisbury University. SLU ended the first half with a 12-0 deficit. But junior Conor Brady put them on the board with a try early in the second half, and junior Jake Livingston secured the lead by scoring with a dummy pass followed by some shifty footwork (A video clip of the resulting try was posted by USA Rugby and viewed over 34,000 times). Livingston would follow up his performance with a second try minutes later to end the day with a victory of 19-12.

SLU was given a chance to redeem themselves against Lindenwood-Belleville in the semifinals early Sunday morning. Despite a last-minute schedule change meant to avoid the approaching storm, the rain started just before kickoff and would continue throughout the day. A series of breakaways by SLU put them up early, at one point leading 26-7. But Belleville, a full varsity program, maintained the pressure throughout the whole game and mounted an impressive counter-attack in the final minutes, coming within 5 points of their opponent. But when the final whistle blew, SLU ended up on top, 26-21, and earned their spot in the final.

Victory in the final game seemed achievable early on, when a try by Ryan Guercio tied the game, 5-5. But in the end, SLU was no match for sheer athleticism of the Duluth side, who went on to win 29-5. Minnesota-Duluth is a rugby powerhouse, having won the 15s National Championship in the previous fall for the third straight year. They proved Sunday that their prowess translated to both versions of the sport. This was the first time a team has ever won a D-II national title for 15s and 7s in the same year.

Though SLU’s dreams of a national title remain unfulfilled, the squad can pride themselves in being the first SLU side to play for a national title. And although SLU will be graduating three talented seniors this year — Kevin Reilly, Joe Mazur and Dylan Vu — a strong underclassmen presence on the team means the future looks promising for SLU Rugby.


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