At the start of fall 2019, new head rugby coach Jason Adams had only 10-15 men at a time on board to start the season with only four practices between them and the first 15-player game. One semester later, this undefeated underdog team is on its way to nationals.
Fall 2019 presented challenges for Franciscan University of Steubenville’s rugby team that differed from past seasons. According to senior PJ Ernst, fall 2019 team president, the team’s budget was cut and there was no “hell week” — a week of preseason conditioning — or spring 2019 season, both of which returning players were used to having. The team was also faced with injuries throughout the season, commitment problems and getting used to a brand-new coach.
“It’s like knocking off a bunch of rust,” said Ernst. “We had a lot of adversity, we overcame that adversity, and in learning that, I think we’ve really become better men through that — not only on the pitch, but I think we’ve become better men off the pitch as well.”
The ruggers became a well-oiled team and finished the season undefeated. In November, they competed in regionals. Used to adversity, they went with 18 men, leaving a wiggle room of only three subs. Of the 15 starters, four were new players that season.
“Everything just came together that weekend,” said Adams.
Adams explained that one of the seniors was injured in the first game, so the next day, the team played with only two subs. Senior captain Josh Leatherby gave a “fiery speech” about playing hurt, said Adams.
“They already had it in their mind that they would finish this game no matter what. And it showed,” Adams said. “We played St. John’s (University) in the Regional Central Championship. Their guys were falling down left and right. We were just running them over, we were running through them. … We never tied. Nobody ever tied us. We were always ahead (in every game).”
The Barons won regionals by a landslide 52-23. With the regional title under their belts, they now prepare for nationals.
The last time the Barons made it to the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO)’s Championship was in 2012. Then, the Barons were ranked No. 3 in the league. This time around is different. Of the over 240 Division III men’s rugby teams in NSCRO, Franciscan is ranked No. 2, its highest ranking in program history.
“I strongly feel like if we’d have had the championship game the following weekend last November, we would’ve won it,” said Adams. “We’d have been national champs.”
“The team was at its peak, everybody knew what they were doing, they could read each other’s minds. It was just a work of art. … Now we just have to do it again,” said Adams.
Even though funding cuts meant that the Baron ruggers did not anticipate a spring season, Adams and his team decided to go above and beyond and keep training for nationals. They already have some friendlies — non-conference matches — scheduled.
Feb. 29 at 11 a.m., they will kick of their spring season with a friendly against alumni. Then March 28, the Barons will head to Christendom to play the team coached by other Franciscan alumni.
The Barons also will try to qualify for NSCRO 7s in April, which would give them the opportunity to win two NSCRO championships.
Through it all, the Barons will spend this spring building on the foundation set in the fall. They are preparing physically, especially thanks to their strength and conditioning coach, graduate Jacob Wilson, who is still “busting his butt to bust our butt,” said Ernst.
They also are preparing internally. In January, Adams had his players fill out a card about their “why.” He wants the men to remember why they play rugby, and he reminds them that even if they don’t get the recognition they want, they are playing for God, for their teammates, for their coach and for themselves.
Adams said, “Somebody asked me, ‘Do you want to see these guys to the national championship? Is that what you want for them?’ And I was like, yeah that’d be great … but what I really want is in 20 years for them to look back and say, ‘I did that. And I remember that.’ And also, I want to hear the players 20 years down the road telling me, ‘thank you for preparing me to be a better person off the field, a good husband, father, brother. Thanks for giving me the light, in a way.’”
Ernst also is excited to see the fruits of this season. The team always strives to play with dignity and passion, but additionally, Ernst said, “I can feel a renewed sense of boys becoming men. … It’s humbling. It’s very deeply satisfying. … I personally think this is a standard that we want Franciscan rugby to be for generations, for the next teams to come. I hope it’s the gold standard, if you will.”
The ruggers will head to Moraga, California, April 24-26. The other schools competing in the championship are Loyola University Maryland and Salve Regina University — both Catholic schools — and one more team yet to be determined.
To support the team financially, please go to www.franciscanathletics.com, go to “Give” and specify “Rugby” in the Fund Name. Donations will go toward rugby needs such as transportation and new team kits.