Simpson rugby seeks third national tournament appearance

by Matt Lash, Sports Reporter

INDIANOLA, Iowa — On a campus as small as Simpson’s, sports such as football, basketball, soccer and softball are often the largest and most recognized teams by campus standards. Although most athletes who come to Simpson for athletics come for one of the aforementioned teams, rugby is a sport that is becoming more competitive, and athletes hope to be a force to be reckoned with.

Rugby is often compared to football and soccer. However, the biggest thing that separates the sports is the amount of protective gear used in competition. In sports that are often considered to be contact or collision sports, including football and soccer, players are expected to use lots of padding as a safety precaution.

Football has helmets, shoulder pads, leg padding, neck and back braces, mouth and chin guards and sometimes a visor.

Likewise, soccer players are protected by knee pads, padded shorts, shin guards and sometimes a mouth guard.

In rugby, the only protection used is a mouth guard.

Andrew Harris, a recent Simpson graduate, was a part of the team for his entire collegiate career. However, he suffered season-ending tears in his ACL his first and last seasons at Simpson.

“Men’s rugby has been at Simpson on and off since 1979, if I’m not mistaken. Because of the lack of funding, recruitment, and full-time coaches, it’s hard for the team to become stabilized,” Harris said. Like all athletic teams, the Simpson rugby team has seen its ups and downs, but in recent years the program has grown tremendously.

Senior Jordan Mauk has been a part of the team since coming to Simpson. After playing rugby for three consecutive years, Mauk, a co-captain of the team, has seen growth in the skill and ability of the team.

“We have a solid foundation that is ready to step up and make plays to help the team,” Mauk said. “We don’t really get a lot of recognition from Simpson, but we are getting better each year and are starting to see it pay off.”

Both the men’s and women’s rugby teams have been steadily increasing their records and ability. Though the men’s team hasn’t seen a major increase over the years, consistently seeing 10-12 players on the roster, this year half of the team are first-time athletes who are likely to compete on the team for a few years.

This is both good and bad for a team that is just growing on campus.

“We have to go through all the basics in practice a bunch of times so the new guys can get it, but it’ll pay off because hopefully they’ll stick around a few years and we can grow because of it,” Mauk said. Last year, the men’s team won the Foolsfest Tournament, the final competition of the season, with only seven active players.

On the women’s side, senior Diana Lichty said she is hopeful for the season. Lichty was one of the original members of the women’s team when it first came to Simpson three years ago. Since spring 2015, when the women’s team was introduced, the team has continued to grow in size and ability.

“Three years ago when the team was started, there were only about eight girls on the team,” Lichty said. “Now we have 11 girls total, seven of which are returning to the team.”

Although the team only consisted of 10 athletes, the women’s team has participated in the National Small College Rugby Organization’s (NSCRO) national tournament for two consecutive years, placing fourth in 2015 and sixth in 2016.

“We play against big, 40-girl teams that are from Division I schools,” Lichty said. “I’m glad we’ve been able to stay competitive and make the runs we’ve made into the National tournaments in that past. Wayne State is our biggest rival. They were the only team we lost to during the regular season last year. We are hoping to avenge those losses this year.”

Head coach Jeff McHenry has been with Simpson rugby for two years and continues to notice the recognition and improvements being made by the team.

“Rugby is part of the athletic department. They have always taken care of us,” McHenry stressed. “We may not get the space that we want, but we always have the space we need.”

Although it isn’t listed on the Simpson Athletics website, the team does have an operating budget from the school.

“That’s a big deal, in my eyes,” McHenry said. “Not many colleges or universities have that support.”

Too often, rugby players are thought of as super athletes who crave violence. At Simpson, however, the team wants to be known for something different: the camaraderie that goes beyond the pitch. Enemies on the field, brothers off,” McHenry said. “It is also one of most inclusive and welcoming sport around the world, a game for all shapes and sizes of athletes. It really is a way of life.”

The only home competition for the Storm will be the Simpson Showdown Tournament on March 18.