Valdosta Daily Times

Local Sports

May 25, 2014

Eyes on the prize

Valdosta State Club Rugby seeks national championship in Philadelphia

VALDOSTA — The softball team aren't the only Blazers with national championship aspirations this summer. The Valdosta State club rugby team will play in the National Small College Rugby Organization's 7s national tournament in Philadelphia on Saturday.

Unlike the softball team, a national championship isn't the only thing the VSU club rugby team is playing for; the club rugby team is also playing to cement its future at the university.

Despite experiencing overwhelming success in its short existence, the VSU club rugby team hasn't received the same type of recognition or support as its more well-known counterparts.

Established in 2010 as a club sport at Valdosta State, the club rugby team has traveled to — and won — various tournaments in the Southeast, even hosting the Blazin' 7s Tournament on North Campus the past four years.

The Blazers won the nationally-recognized Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Tournament in their first season and have since parlayed that victory into sustainable success, but the school funding and university support hasn't been as consistent.

VSU club rugby has to make travel accommodations on its own, including paying for a majority of expenses such as travel, food, and lodging.

"For us, since this is only our fourth year, we haven't had that much funding from the school," said the VSU club rugby team president Danny Lanning. "They haven't really recognized us as much as we should be, but that's getting better every year."

The 2013-14 season was the first for VSU in a strictly collegiate matrix, giving the Blazers postseason eligibility, and the team's first big test was passed with flying colors — finishing the season ranked No. 10 out of 200 teams nationwide in the NSCRO poll.

In rugby, there are two different ways to play: in a 15-player, 80-minute contest, or a seven-player, 14-minute game.

While the VSU club rugby team succeeded in the plodding style 15s rugby offers, they have flourished in the wide-open style of 7s.

"In 15s, it's a slower game pace," said Lanning. "You're not as rushed to get the scores in; you're more focused on keeping possession and keeping your drive alive. Unlike football you can have the ball the whole game if you like if they can't take it away.

"Usually it's a more physical game, bigger hits and more contact."

VSU's 15s season came to an end in the South Cup finals held in Pensacola, Fla., against Loyola University of New Orleans, but soon after the 7s season started for the Blazers, offering a chance for redemption.

"In 7s, it's little more rushed, a little more frantic out there because you have to get the scores in really quickly. It's just a different game pace," said Lanning. "There's a lot more sprinting involved. You're constantly moving, you're constantly working back; it's just a shootout to see who can get the most points sometimes."

VSU's club rugby team performed well enough in its shore 7s season to earn an invite to a national qualifying tournament.

According to the NSCRO website: from April to early May, eight qualifying tournaments were held throughout the country with 60 different NSCRO college teams participating. VSU participated in the Emory qualifier on April 12 in Atlanta against a pool of eight teams including: Emory University, Georgia State University, Georgia Gulf Coast State University, Lee University, Loyola University and Morehouse College.

VSU defeated Lee in the semifinals to set up a revenge game against Loyola in the finals, but this time the Blazers were the ones to earn a national tournament berth, winning 39-5.

With a dearth of experience amongst the younger players in 15s, the VSU club rugby team was able to rely on its top talent in 7s to clinch a spot in the NSCRO 7s national tournament.

"The 7's team is usually our most skilled players; the guys with the best ballhandling, the best ball transfer, and the best understanding of the game," said Lanning. "It's a much more fundamental game because you can't hide anyone like you can in 15s.

"In 7s there's a lot of individual play. Because there is so much space you're responsible for your man and everything that's going on on your side of the field."

Just eight teams in the country qualify for the NSCRO 7's national tournament. In addition to VSU, Sonoma State University, University of Richmond, New England College, Susquehanna University, Lafayette College, New Mexico Highlands University and the University of North Florida will compete for the national championship in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately for VSU club rugby, earning one of eight spots in the NSCRO 7s national tournament wasn't the final hurdle; it still had to find a way to fund the nearly 900 mile trip.

Because of the lack of school funding, the VSU club rugby team resorted to a variety of fundraising efforts to raise the money necessary.

"We did a lot of fundraising just to be able to help get us there," said Lanning. "The biggest one was the car wash we held one Saturday afternoon. That alone raised about $500 just from donations, people stopping by, people getting their car washed and old alumni stopping by to help out."

VSU club rugby also worked in conjunction with The Mill in its fundraising efforts.

"Those funds are really helping us offset the cost of hotels and VSU is helping us out tremendously by allowing us to take one of the athletic buses up there," said Lanning. "The school's going to pay for all the transportation fees, driver expenses, and stuff like that and that helps us out big time."

VSU's success this season has been nothing short of remarkable considering how long the club has been established which may explain the lack of funding and support the club has received to this point.

"For the other schools (funding) depends on how long they've been established," said Lanning. "I've seen the other school's consistently ride up in school-funded buses, and I assume the school helps them fly out.

"From what I understand these more established school's will have more funding, more supplies, and coaching while we're just out here doing our thing by ourselves."

Yet, if the VSU club rugby team continues churning out successful seasons like its current one, Lanning doesn't think it'll be long until funding and recognition follows.

"I'd like to say within the next year or two," said Lanning when asked how long it'd take VSU to take notice of the club's accomplishments. "From the interactions with (VSU) this past year, this is a real paramount step in the development of the club just because we're going to nationals and we're recognized on a national level. We do know the president of NSCRO, our association, has emailed the school officials to let them know who they are and how we're doing.

"Everybody is learning more about us. This was our first year in a college bracket so that's more up the school's alley I would say."

One step has already been made by the university, figuring the national tournament and national qualifiers into the club rugby team's budget for next season.

Still, winning a national championship this season would bring some excitement to a sport without much fanfare in the heart of TitleTown.

"Winning it would get more kids out there, of course, we'd get more recognition in Georgia and on a national level," said Lanning. "We've always been the talk of the Southeast, but now we can be the talk of the country for Division II rugby which NSCRO represents.

"We'll get more funding if we bring back a trophy."

The VSU club rugby team opens pool play in the NSCRO 7s national tournament at 9:10 a.m. Saturday against Richmond.

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