rugby

During practice Jan. 30, the UT rugby team executes a line-out, in which they life economics senior Rafael Lopez Segovia for the ball. Segovia and his team captured a conference championship on their rise to the national spotlight in college rugby. 

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

The University of Texas Rugby Club’s season came to an end on Saturday with a 64-10 beat down at the hands of the U.S. Naval Academy in the Varsity Cup quarterfinals. 

“I knew it was going to be a long day, and we would have to be our best,” first-year head coach Christopher “Bus” Hopps said of the loss to the Midshipmen. “On a day we needed to be our best, we just weren’t.”  

That brutal loss is just a small part of what has been an otherwise spectacular season for the young Longhorn squad.

The same Texas team that nearly lost to Stephen F. Austin at the beginning of the year found itself competing last month against Texas State in the Southwest Conference Championship.  The much-improved Longhorns blew out the Bobcats 40-17 in San Marcos to cap off a regular season that saw the team go undefeated in Texas, satisfying the demands of its new head coach.

“We just want to perform at or above our potential,” Hopps said. “I think, this year, what that ended up being is seeing [the Longhorns] become the premier program in the state of Texas. We’ve taken the lead in Texas, and, next, we are taking the lead in the nation.”

Two weeks ago, the Longhorns sought to take their cause outside of Texas, as the squad began competition in the Varsity Cup, the most prestigious post-season tournament in collegiate rugby. The team traveled to South Bend, Ind., to take on highly touted Notre Dame in the opening round of the 12-team single elimination tournament. 

The underdog Longhorns erupted out of the gate against the Fighting Irish, piling on points early en route to a 55-33 victory. 

“We just came out strong, and we didn’t let off,” said Danny Camara, club president and graduating psychology senior. “It was probably the best game of rugby [Texas] has played since I’ve been here.”

The win propelled Texas rugby to relevance on the national stage, where the Longhorns hope to become a fixture in the next couple of years.

“We learned that we were able to play to a standard that we had never played before,” Hopps said. “It’s not a flash in the pan. It’s not a fluke that we got here.”

The loss to Navy may not have been the conclusion Camara and his fellow seniors were hoping for, but, with only four starters graduating, the future looks bright for Hopps’ Longhorns.

“[Our freshman class] is as any I’ve ever been around in rugby, and I said the same thing about our freshman class last year,” Hopps said. “With those two groups of young men together, I think you can expect to see good things from Texas rugby for the next three or four years.” 

One of the strong freshman Hopps is talking about is flanker Reed Hogan, who has been a fixture in the Longhorns’ starting lineup this season. Hogan and the rest of the freshman may have served as solid starters, but the youngster knows that he has not reached his full potential. 

“It definitely helped the team having freshman who had played [rugby before coming to UT], but we can only get better,” Hogan, a communication studies freshman, said. “I expect us to win our conference again and beat A&M and OU.”

With a strong core of young players, the new kids on the block should be getting comfortable on the center stage. 

Communication studies freshman Reed Hogan, who has become a standout player for the rugby team, practices with his teammates in anticipaton of their upcoming season. 

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

Those mourning the end of the resonating hits and world-class athleticism of football season need weep no more. 

The Texas Rugby Club carries the thrills of football season into the spring semester. The club begins 15-man rugby play at the Whitaker Fields, typically used for intramurals, against North Texas on Friday, hoping to build on a fall semester that saw the Longhorn seven-man rugby team finish the season 12th in the nation. 

“We don’t set goals in terms of wins or losses,” first-year head coach Christopher “Bus” Hopps said. “Our goal is to become the best team in Texas.” 

Hopps takes control of a team that finished second in its conference last year, losing only to Texas A&M, but the coach has his work cut out for him, as the Longhorns are one of 12 teams that have been invited to compete in the Varsity Cup, the top postseason tournament in collegiate rugby.

The new coach inherits a core of veterans, including captain Danny Camara, who oversaw the club’s transition from a casual, recreational sport to one of the premier competitive rugby programs in the nation.

“The team culture has definitely switched from a fun thing to do on the weekends to a professional, legitimate program,” Camara, a psychology senior, said. “Everyone who comes to Texas rugby realizes it’s something special.” 

Hopps also has the privilege of coaching an enticing newcomer, flanker Reed Hogan. Hogan, a communication studies freshman, comes to the Longhorns from national high school rugby powerhouse St. Thomas, in Houston, where he won three state championships and was named 2013 Texas Forward of the year. 

Chemical engineering senior John Boudreaux, a current teammate of Hogan’s and his former high school team captain, said Hogan will be a star player this year.

“We expect to give him the ball a lot and to let him make things happen,” Boudreaux said.

Hogan’s rise from the bench of the sevens B team exceeded all expectations of a freshman player. 

“Sevens is so demanding and there is so little room for error that we don’t want [freshmen] in that environment right away,” Boudreaux said. “[Hogan] showed that he could not only hang with us but with the top players of the nation as well.” 

Hogan’s success in high school and with the Longhorns caught the eye of USA Rugby scouts, who invited him to Phoenix to tryout for the under-20 national team over winter break. Although Hogan did not make the national team on his first attempt, he has two years of eligibility left to try again. 

If recent history is any indication, Hogan is more than capable of bulldozing through initial discouragement, rising to the top of the player pool and leading the Longhorns to victory on the rugby pitch. 

“I want to be the No. 1 team in our conference by the end of the season,” Hogan said. “I want to do whatever the team needs me to do to achieve that goal.”

Two players on the UT rugby team practice for the National Collegiate Rugby Championship in Philadelphia. The team has faced unexpected challenges after its         captain, Stephanie Flores, died from a head injury suffered during a game last year.

Photo Credit: Marshall Nolen | Daily Texan Staff

In a back corner of the University of Texas intramural fields, a group of women jogged back and forth between tiny colored cones to the rhythm of a loud beep last Monday. The beep sounded with increasing frequency, and the women, all members of the UT rugby team, picked up their speed until only Sierra Jenkins, the team captain and an Olympic hopeful, remained. Jenkins ran back and forth between the cones, each time increasing her speed, until finally she too came to a stop.

The women, smiling and chatting among themselves on the sidelines, called out the number of laps they had run to head coach Traci Schmidtke, who hurriedly wrote them down. The team doesn’t usually run this drill, or practice this late in the spring, but in less than two months, they will compete in the National Collegiate Rugby Championship in Philadelphia. 

They have a long way to go to be prepared. 

As the women of the team will tell you, it is a short distance compared with how far they’ve come since 2011, when team captain Stephanie Flores died from a head injury sustained during a game. Even in the rough sport of rugby, fatal injuries are rare. The unexpectedness of the accident and the tragedy of losing a close friend hit the team hard. But it also gave them purpose. 

“After it happened, we lost a few people who decided that they would rather not keep playing. And we respected their decisions, but it wasn’t an overwhelming number,” said Marie Meyers, an anthropology senior who has played with the team for three years. 

The memory of Flores, Meyers said, is part of what keeps her playing. 

“It affected more of the tone that the rest of the team took the next year. It brought us together as a team. There was already us playing for the team and playing for the school, but then there’s the added factor of having, you know, stuff to play for,” Meyers said. 

In recent years, the team has certainly played like it has purpose. Last year, it took home first in their division. In December, it took home fourth place in the National Collegiate Sevens Final Four Finish. 

“I think the resilience of overcoming tragedy on our team has corresponded with the improvement of our club from a team that didn’t win as many games to a team that won it’s division last year, to the national championship,” said Jen Moreno, who has worked as an assistant coach for the team since 2010. 

In late May, two members of the UT rugby team, including Jenkins, will join other Olympic hopefuls at a Team USA training camp. There, recruiters will get to know potential members of the 2016 USA women’s rugby team. In the three years before the USA team heads to the Olympics, Jenkins hopes more members of the UT team will be invited to attend training camps. 

But for now, the women of the team are simply enjoying playing the game, tackles included. In fact, the rough nature of the sport attracted many of the new recruits to rugby. 

“I had grown up playing soccer in high school, and I loved that. And then, when I found rugby, I was like, ‘Oh, well this is perfect, because now I can actually hit people, and not just pretend to hit people,’” said Christina Ruiz, a freshman and a new member of the team. 

According to Jenkins, the women learn how to tackle correctly in early practices, which reduces the risk of injury. Though the team has two to three injuries a year, none of the women seem overly concerned about getting hurt. 

“Whenever I’m injured and I can’t play, I just itch to get back out there,” said Meyers, who has sat out two consecutive spring seasons because of injuries. 

“I mean, frankly, I find women’s rugby to be a little bit safer then men’s rugby. We don’t tackle with the head like in football; there’s not the same sort of concussion risk. We tackle lower and more controlled,” Meyers said. 

Even so, Meyers knows she will eventually stop playing rugby. Her father played for more than 30 years, and she said seeing him undergo surgery on both knees made her confront the impossibility of playing rugby forever. So she gave herself some limits. 

“I’ve made cutoffs for myself,” Meyers said. “Whichever comes first: three concussions (I’ve had one), a major surgery or, like, 30 or getting married or wanting to have kids, [and] I’ll stop playing. But until any of those things happen, I’m playing rugby.” 

Freshman physics major Bill Monat tries to evade a tackle in this weekend’s rugby combine. Monat placed first in this part of the tryout which was held in hopes of finding a new Texas Rugby member. (Photo courtesy of Michael Giurgea)

Bill Monat, a 19 year-old freshman, was first introduced to Texas Rugby just a few weeks ago after players on the team spotted him leaving his dorm. After attending rugby practices last week, the 6-feet-1-inch, 215-pound Chicago native agreed to compete in a rugby combine like no other.

Last Saturday, the Texas Rugby team, in collaboration with its training partners at RedBlack Gym, hosted a CrossFit-style combine during which Longhorn men competed in ten physically draining, mentally taxing tests.

Although 30 men originally committed to participate in the combine, fewer than 20 Longhorns made an appearance at Clark Field on Saturday morning. The resignation of one competitor after only the warm-up was a clear indication that the combine had not been designed for the faint-hearted or weak-willed.

Because CrossFit is committed to conditioning every physical and psychological factor utilized during an athletic performance, the participants at the combine were faced with workouts that targeted numerous facets of their athleticism including agility, explosiveness, speed, endurance and strength. In addition, the event incorporated rugby-specific evasion and tackling drills.

The first test was a two-round, tri-part challenge designated as the workout of the day — WOD, in CrossFit lingo — that was unanimously voted the toughest challenge. In groups of four, the athletes swung 53-pound kettlebell weights, starting from a slacked-arm position, over their heads 21 times. Next, they dropped to the ground and cranked out 12 push-ups. Then, they jumped to their feet and sprinted 400 meters, only to return to the starting position and repeat the process one more time.

“At the beginning, we wanted to give them a taste of what CrossFit is all about. We planned the WOD test first to weed out the ones that we knew wouldn’t make it,” RedBlack Gym trainer Travis Holley said. “Then we moved on to the sport-specific and skills test and finished with the broad athleticism [endurance] workout.”

Four tests into the combine, a few competitors began to catch the attention of the current Texas Rugby team members who were running the event. One of these standout athletes was Monat.

From both defensive and offensive linebacker to running back, Monat played many football positions throughout high school but never considered rugby. However, unlike the majority of competitive sports, Texas Rugby president Noah Villalobos is well-aware that prior involvement is not necessary for success in rugby.

“Most guys start playing rugby when they’re freshmen in college [and] don’t have any previous experience ... At the collegiate level, [put] an [elite] athlete on the field and he will dominate.”

At the end of the day, Monat finished second overall, placing first in the 20-pound medicine ball throw — with a ridiculous measurement of 28.7 feet — the kettlebell floor press as well as the rugby-specific evasion drill.

Drawn to the dynamic, fast-paced nature of the sport — which he prefers over football — Monat intends to pursue the rugby team.

Villalobos had various goals for the combine, including identifying elite athletes who could potentially help the 19th nationally-ranked Longhorns in their pursuit of a first place win at the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship in June, an event invented three years ago in a response to a rapidly-growing interest in the sport.

“If Bill gets his rugby skills up, he will play in the CRC,” Villalobos said.

By finding Monat as well as several other promising athletes, Villalobos achieved one of his goals. However, the purpose of the combine was more than a recruiting venture.

“Not enough of the population knows about rugby,” Villalobos said. “[The combine is just] another step in letting more and more people know what rugby is and what it takes.”

For the first time in 88 years, rugby will be featured in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Attempts to heighten the sport’s awareness in America range from competitions at the national level — like the rugby championship — to local endeavors such as the CrossFit combine.

Emily Shryock, a sociology graduate student and sophomore accounting major Jeff Butler play for UT’s wheelchair rugby team, Texas Stampede. Both Shryock and Butler were selected to represent the United States on the national development wheelchair rugby team, Team Force, making them contenders for a spot on Team USA for the Paralympic Games in 2012.

Photo Credit: Amanda Martin | Daily Texan Staff

“About every tournament I’ll rip the knuckles on the back of my hand open from pushing and stuff,” said Jeff Butler, a junior in the McCombs School of Business who plays wheelchair rugby for the Texas Stampede, the Austin club team. “Really nothing that requires stitches or a hospital trip, just a lot of Band-Aids and anti-bacterial cream.”

Butler is talking about wheelchair rugby — the sport that he describes as “intense” and some call “murderball” — a reference to the broken fingers, overturned wheelchairs and other injuries that tend to occur when eight paraplegic athletes (both male and female) in custom-built, enforced wheelchairs gather on a basketball court and battle each other full-throttle for the ball in a game of ice hockey, basketball and bumper cars gone mad.

“In my rugby career I’ve broken two fingers and I bruised my ribs pretty severely this past December,” said Butler’s teammate Emily Shryock, a disabilities service coordinator in the UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. “Most of the time, it’s nothing too serious. Bruises and scrapes, things like that.”

Butler and Shryock were both selected in May to represent the United States as players on the national developmental wheelchair rugby team, Team Force. The team is designed to bridge the gap between the United States club circuit and the international circuit by identifying and preparing the next generation of wheelchair rugby players for international play.

In December, Butler and Shryock will travel to the Lakeshore Foundation Paralympic Training Site in Birmingham, Ala. where Paralympic athletes train for their respective events. The tryout will determine who will play on Team USA in the 2012 Paralympic Games, which will be held in London. The tryout will be run like an athletic camp — “it’s basically a long weekend,” Butler said — that will involve three-a-day practices and a series of cuts until the final team lineup is chosen.

“The tryouts are very intense,” Shryock, 24, said. “The standards that they’re using and they’re looking for are the same that would be found in any elite top-level sport. Players who are team players and who are comfortable with the commitment and the determination it takes to make it to that top level.”

For Butler and Shryock, who both moved to Austin from Indiana in 2010 so they could play for Texas Stampede, the December tryout is something they’ve been working towards since their days of playing for Indianapolis’ team, the Indy Brawlers.

“I moved to Austin to play rugby,” Butler, 21, said. “The rugby’s better, the school is better, the sports are better.”

Shryock and Butler said that the Stampede’s excellence in the sport can be partly attributed to the coaching of James Gumbert, who Stampede players call “Gumbie.” Gumbert, who also happens to be the commissioner of the United States Quad Rugby Association and the coach of Team USA, has been playing wheelchair rugby for 20 years and led the team to gold at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Gumbert said that for him, the medals are only part of the game; touching athletes’ lives and the inclusion that comes with wheelchair rugby are just as important.

“There’s a place for everyone at our table,” Gumbert said. “The fact that you’re old or young or you’re a guy or a girl or you’ve got one arm or an amputation above your elbow — that’s what’s groovy about it, it’s just a really inclusive sport.”

His coaching style gave players like Butler and Shryock incentive to move to Austin to play ball.

“I knew that by moving down here I would have a lot better coaching opportunities,” Butler said. “It’s really important in player development to have a really active and really good coach and that’s what I have down here in Austin. It’s important in helping me achieve my goals, which is to be on Team USA.”

The weeks and months between now and the tryout in December will find Butler and Shryock playing ball with the Stampede, whose season begins in October. They’ll be able to practice game technique and strategy with the team while training independently to work on endurance, quickness and strength in Gregory Gym. Practice won’t spare them murderball’s aggression, but by now it’s something the two are used to.

“It’s hand injuries, that’s all,” Butler said. “We have pretty messed up hands. But it’s worth it.”

Printed on September 20, 2011 as: 'Murderballers' take on tough rugby

Butch Neuenschwander, head coach of the UT men’s rugby club team said that rugby is a safe sport with a strong community.

Photo Credit: Erika Rich | Daily Texan Staff

Fatal injuries in rugby are extremely rare, despite the sport’s limited protective gear and aggressive nature, said a men’s rugby coach.

UT women’s rugby club captain Stephanie Flores died of complications from a head injury sustained during a match in Kansas City two weeks ago. However, Butch Neuenschwander, head coach of the men’s rugby club team at UT, said her rare and tragic accident doesn’t require the sport to change its rules.

Twenty-two-year-old Flores hit her head after being tackled during a regional tournament. She was hospitalized in Kansas City on April 10 and died in the intensive care unit on April 14.

Neuenschwander said the severity of Flores’ injury was a “freak accident” and came as a shock because fatal injuries are very rare in rugby. Neuenschwander said rugby is a very safe sport, and in his 20 years of playing, coaching and refereeing rugby, he has never seen an accident like Flores’ and neither has his coaching staff.

“People who don’t understand the sport and see maybe a glimpse of it on TV think its this really rough, barbaric sport, like we’re playing tackle football without pads, but that’s not true,” he said.
Neuenschwander said rugby officials and coaches take extreme steps when training players to instill the proper ways to tackle safely, and the regulations are strictly enforced.

“We take safety very seriously, and players know that,” he said. “A guy can be thrown out of a match and suspended from playing for months at a time if he makes some kind of dangerous play.”

UT men’s rugby club’s sports medicine physician Martha Pyron said there are three categories of potentially fatal injuries in sports: head injuries that could be as minor as a concussion, cardiac injuries that could cause heart problems and lung conditions such as asthma.

Pyron said in the last 30 years, rugby has been adapted to make the sport safer, but that doesn’t mean there is no risk of serious injury.

“The risk that [is specific to] rugby is that it does not allow any rigid material on the player,” she said. “They are not allowed to wear helmets, but they can wear a skull cap with padding inside that provides a little bit of protection but not a lot.”

Pyron agrees that Flores’ fatal injury was a very uncommon incident. She’s been tending to the men’s rugby team for eight years and has only seen one neck injury on an opposing team that could have been severe.

She also said rarity does not eliminate the risk.

“This was a really rare thing that happened, but it is still possible,” she said. “Especially in a contact sport that doesn’t provide any real head protection.”

Pyron said one of the most challenging things in sports medicine is determining when to recommend changing the rules of the sport or how it is played.

“At what point do you change the rules of the game all depends on the number of injuries and how many people are really having problems,” she said. “I’m not so sure rugby is at the point that they need to make that kind of change.” 

The UT Women’s Rugby Club captain died in Kansas City from complications of a head injury last week.

Biology senior Stephanie Flores, 22, was playing with the Texas Rugby Union Under-23 team at a regional tournament on April 10 when she was tackled, hospitalized and taken to the intensive care unit, where she died on April 14.

Texas Rugby Union head coach Traci Schmidtke, who coached Flores for five years, said she selected Flores as an all-star team member because she had outstanding abilities as one of the top 28 players in the state. She said Flores was a practical player and liked to analyze the game.

“She just had a great attitude and leadership on the field,” Schmidtke said. “She made other players on the team comfortable.”

Anna Kunkle, the UT Women’s Rugby Club head coach, said Flores was a fly half, which is a crucial role on the team that makes tactical decisions for the game. Kunkel said she saw Flores’ drive and commitment when Flores took refereeing classes and dedicated herself to being captain of the team.

“She just loved the game,” Kunkel said. “She would email me about how we could improve. She went above and beyond for her teammates. She was a great captain.”

English senior Lyliana Gonzalez met Flores when she was a freshman outside of Gregory Gym. Gonzalez said Flores was recruiting for the rugby team, noticed Gonzalez hovering near the table and asked her to play for the team.

Flores was completing her third degree at UT after graduating last year with English and radio-television-film degrees, Gonzalez said. Gonzalez said Flores had many ambitions she wanted to pursue after graduation, from buying a vineyard in Italy to becoming a doctor.

“She could do anything. She was just that type of person,” Gonzalez said. “It was not if she was going to succeed, but when she was going to succeed.”

Flores was encouraging and played big sister to everyone on the team, Gonzalez said.

“I absolutely love rugby,” a testimonial from Flores said on the club’s website. “Looking back on my years on the team, I can honestly say that sucking it up and getting over the initial bashfulness of showing up to my very first practice was by far the best decision I have ever made while at UT, and I have not regretted it one second.”