Despite obstacles, 5C rugby chasing another national title

The Claremont College's Lions rugby team huddles up on the field during a practice as the sun sets in the background.
The Claremont College’s Lions rugby team huddles up during a practice. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

After the Claremont Colleges men’s rugby team’s win over the University of San Diego at a league championship game Sunday, Conner Pederson CM ’20 could only shake his head.

“Yesterday might’ve been our worst game all season,” Pederson said. “Given how much progress we’ve made [and] what we’re capable of, we definitely took a big hit against USD.”

The hard-fought 34-24 win clinched the Lions’ third consecutive Gold Coast Conference Intercollegiate Rugby title. The team faced no shortage of challenges and only led by three points late, until a 70-yard run by Matthew Sill CM ’21 in the closing moments put the game out of reach.

After losing the bulk of its players to graduation following the 2016-17 season, when the Lions won the National Small Colleges Rugby Organization Champions Cup, the team has struggled to replicate its success, which showed Sunday against USD.

The team’s biggest challenges? Depth and injuries.

Frankie Rayis CM ’20 said the team is much less deep than it was two years ago, and although the top players are still solid, there’s not as much depth behind them. Head coach Jeremy Ognall said injuries have also hurt the squad.

Pederson is among the injured players this season — the junior suffered his second torn ACL in three years.

“[Pederson] was just a game-changer for us,” Ognall said. “He’s a phenomenally talented athlete … there couldn’t be anyone more charismatic or driven to carry us forward.”

Two CMC rugby players lift one of their teammates into the air to catch a rugby ball during practice.
Jae Kinney CM ’21 and Connor Lehner CM ’20 lift up Zach Heffernan CM ’21 to catch the ball during a practice Mar. 27. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Pederson remains a leader on the team. He’s been a captain for the last two seasons, and Ognall says he’s almost a “fourth coach.” Pederson said he learned how to become a good leader from the senior captains during his first year on the team.

“The seniors weren’t the biggest, they weren’t the fastest and they hadn’t been playing rugby the longest, but they were the most dedicated to getting better in and out of every practice and demanding that attitude from the players around them,” Pederson said.

He said those captains’ main accomplishment was instituting a culture of good character. In the win over USD Sunday, despite choppy gameplay, Ognall said the team’s character was clear.

“Something I said to them at the end was it wasn’t a pretty win, but it was definitely a character win,” Ognall said. “And the things that made it not a pretty win are fixable, but you can’t coach character –– you either have it or you don’t. I think their character really shone through.”

Another obstacle that faced the team occurred before the season started. Players who also played CMS football in the fall were forced to choose between football and rugby due to a new safety-based policy implemented by Stag football coach Kyle Sweeney.

While no rugby players chose to stop playing based on the rule, Pederson said it prevented some football players, who had wanted to try out rugby, from playing.

“Overcoming that has added a layer of us being calloused as a team,” Pederson said. “What we’ve been able to overcome this season, not that it’s ideal, but we’re onto the other side and onto greener pastures.”

The challenges faced by the rugby team this season have brought the Lions together — Pederson and Rayis said the team is one of the most tight-knit and committed they have ever played on.

And the team isn’t satisfied with the league title — it wants to make a run at another national championship.

“I like where we are, but I’m recognizing that we’re far from living up to our full potential this season,” Ognall said.

Players had similar sentiments.

“I think a lot of other teams are looking at us as maybe weaker than in years past,” Pederson said, “but we’ve been building this team the whole season. We’re on the come-up.”

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