When Rugby Northeast (RNE) kicked off its first season this fall, there was no doubt that the league was well organized – just take a look at their Web site. The level of competition was an unknown, however, since the teams were aligning with the schools’ NCAA affiliation and not teams’ established level of play. Teams like Stonehill College, which advanced to the women’s DII national semifinals, were set to play squads from NERFU’s division four.
One of those former DIV teams is American International College (AIC), and Stonehill coach Derek Jenesky was aware of their success in DIV. They played each other in the opening RNE weekend, and AIC stunned the DII community with a 35-7 victory over Stonehill.
AIC’s story began in 2009, when the school’s administration drove the formation of the men’s and women’s rugby programs. Josh Macy was brought on board in August 2009 to lead both squads, which are categorized as varsity club sports. They have all of the same benefits and requirements of an NCAA varsity sport on campus, and differ in name only.
The men’s program had more student support, so they were able to hit the ground running without any recruits and play games in spring 2010. The women took a little longer, given the male-heavy population on campus, but close to 20 women were able to field a DIV team in fall 2010.
“We started in NERFU’s division four, where they put all college start-ups,” Macy said of teams’ first league seasons. “We begged not to start there, because we are a well organized rugby program. But old-school policy prevailed. The men won all of their games by at least 70 points, and the women won most and lost in the division semifinals.”
Macy's frustration with NERFU didn't quell his recruiting agenda, and being a varsity-model sport at AIC meant the coach could offer rugby scholarships. In the women’s team’s first year, Macy doled out scholarship money to two recruits and a couple of walk-ons who looked promising over the next few years.
“I started to realize that there was only so much I could do in being reactive,” Macy said of the students seeking out AIC. “I got a random e-mail from the [Sacramento] Amazons asking me to check out their team and connect with their coach. I proposed a long-range recruiting trip, worked out what the return on students needed to be if the school was going to spend the money for my travel, and it was approved. I saw mostly girls’ teams that trip - the Amazons, Mother Lode, Alameda. The girls all had lofty goals and wanted to be in a varsity-model environment.”
The recruitment trip paid off and Macy now has three of Nor Cal’s high school stars – Jess Davis (the first to attend on rugby scholarship), Adrianne Rubiaco and Kim Shepard – all wearing black and yellow. There are now 13 players between the men’s and women’s teams who are on scholarship. In addition to the tuition help, AIC helps bridge the financial barriers that accompany travel to tryouts, player camp fees, CIPP dues, practice uniforms – all of those little expenses that further stress out college students.
So after a successful year in DIV and great recruitment, the teams were eager to play up a level. And then came the final blessing: Rugby Northeast.
“We jumped at the chance to not be affiliated with NERFU,” Macy said. “We wasted a year of our programs playing substandard teams. I’m happy to be in division II, where our NCAA rivalries are reflected. We’re at home here – there’s a good level of competition, but that’s not to say we don’t have higher aspirations than DII.”
The AIC women were tested early and faced a massive challenge against Stonehill in their first RNE game. Macy instructed the girls to keep the ball in tight and attack the first channel. It proved to be the correct strategy, as Jenesky later admitted that the team was struggling in the forwards. AIC’s aggression kept Stonehill on their heels and afforded the momentum AIC needed to win.
“We were up after 10 minutes, and you could see a change in the girls’ – and my – faces,” Macy said. “Then we were up 17-0 at half and thought that maybe we’d win. Our game plan was always geared toward winning, and we didn’t go in thinking this was just going to be a learning experience.”
Since then, AIC stumbled slightly against Bentley, tying 10-10, and sits in second place behind St. Michael’s (2-0), which has a 101 point differential in two games. Since the league started a week late, there will only be a championship RNE game, with the winner advancing to Northeast championships.
The RNE championship is certainly within AIC’s grasp, and a nice little battle between AIC, St. Michael’s and Stonehill should evolve. All three teams are favored in their matches this weekend against Merrimack, UMass Lowell and Bentley, respectively. The final two weekends of league will be exciting, as St. Michael’s will round out its season against AIC and Stonehill, and likely determine who will be moving onto the championships.