Men's and Women's Rugby Clubs - Conference Champions Fall 2016
Rugby at Western State Colorado University has a long history, beginning in the 70’s. While many things at Western have changed over the past 40 years, Rugby was not one of them. Consistently, Western’s Men’s Rugby has been a presence in the USA Rugby DII College Division for most of its existence and has always finished near the top of their conference and the Women’s Club has seen continued participation.
This year was different for both the Women’s and Men’s teams.
Two years of strong student leadership and focused coaching resulted in increased participation numbers for the Women’s Rugby team to a committed, full-fledge club averaging 20 players.
Talitha Beattie, the club president, looks back on the season with gratitude. “Although the team had less games than anticipated…the group of girls came bonded as a team incredibly quick and had an awesome time playing together.” The Club’s coach, Justin Walton, agrees. “The athletes were the same, but knowing what to do or what to look for allowed us to play much faster, and be comfortable in situations where poise is needed...the girls competed with each other which in return showed through on game day.”
The Women’s Club, having finished on top of their conference, were invited to play at the National Small College Rugby Organization’s Playoffs in Wayne, Nebraska. “The Western Women’s rugby team had never made it this far in the competition before, and it was a thrilling and exciting opportunity to be in the competition,” raved Talitha. The playoffs were trying with some of the stiffest competition the Club had ever faced and the team lost its first match. “But the team learned more about rugby in the one weekend than we had in the entire previous season.” The Women’s Club left that weekend with a proud 4th place.
“The team this year was relentless in supporting one another both on and off the pitch. Players new and old were enthusiastic to learn more about the game and to keep increasing their skill levels.” Talitha summarizes, “Making it to the playoffs this year has the team hooked. Our efforts next year will be to return to the competition and go even further up the ranks!”
The Men’s team saw similar successes. While skilled for many years, they have not been able to overtake the Colorado School of Mines in recent years and have used the rivals as a measure of success and motivation. The team has always had large members and supportive students, but knew they could continue to improve.
Anthony Luehrs, Western math professor and Men’s Rugby Coach, comments that “three years ago [a number of seniors] left and a whole bunch of freshmen stepped up; Ryan Johnson, Tony Gersick, Nate Ferguson, Cole Zywiec, Blayze Liilii, Austen Smith-Sanchez, and Zach Wilson became the new leaders that actually cared about the team on and off the field.” The team’s growth and increased depth under these student leaders and Coach Luehrs was phenomenal. “You could pull any five players off our current team and I’d still give us better than even odds against any team in our conference” coach Luehrs confidently states.
The Club’s success began at the start of the season with a win against Montana State University, a team that had defeated Western the season before. After a win against Montana, the team met their longtime rivals, Colorado School of Mines. Cole Zywiec, club president, reflects on the match. “This game meant a lot to the team. For over five years our goal has been to beat Mines. This was the year we succeeded. With a win over the then 6th ranked team in the nation, it lit the road to playoffs.”
That win placed Western at 12th in the nation amongst DII schools and gave the team confidence moving forward, completing a perfect 10-0 season and becoming conference champions. The team set to travel to Wayne, Nebraska to compete in the league playoffs. Some car trouble held four members from being able to participate, this did not phase the rest of the team, rallying to play the best game of their season. They faced off against North Dakota State.
“Western was shorthanded and played on with just 16 men. The game was very hard fought and was the best defensive performance the team had all season. They held North Dakota State on a 20-minute goal line stand…even though Western lost this playoff game, they have a lot to look forward to for the upcoming season,” Zywiec says.
“We’re not a better team because our players are bigger or stronger or faster than they used to be, we’re better because everyone has committed to not caring about trivial details like size and speed.” Coach Luehrs says, “We’re better because everyone, collectively as a team, decided to make an active mental decision to win.”
The Men’s team has seen individuals recognized for their success this year. Amongst all other DII schools, there are five players who have been ranked amongst the best of their position. Mike Howshar and Greysen Lincoln are among the top 50 forwards. Blayze LiiLii, Taylor Egloff, and Robert Wagner all sit on the list of the top 50 backs.
All in all, Western Rugby has seen incredible growth in recent years and the Western Club Sports department is more than happy of the success. While the department focuses more on student development these Clubs have excelled in both student development and competitive success.
Both Coaches find their team’s success in the players themselves, and the culture they’ve been able to create.
“The biggest conceptual push I’ve made this year and last is to remind the players on a weekly basis that everything this team does, every win, ever loss, every extra hill sprint, has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them,” Coach Luehrs emphasizes. “I am an employee of this team at best. If they lost this year, it was because they chose to lose, if they won this year it was because they chose to win.”
Coach Walton's praise of his team was well received. "I'm extremely proud of what this group of young women were able to accomplish this year. It's a great day to be a Mountaineer."