One of the best teams playing on the Claremont campuses is flying under the radar. Most of the players never played in high school, the majority of the program’s funding comes from alumni donations, and if you scan a list of the Claremont Colleges’ varsity sports, you won’t find this team. The best-kept secret in 5C athletics plays its home games on Harvey Mudd College’s Linde Field, a scrubby, dried-out, grassy area where the 5C men’s rugby team routinely competes against and defeats Division I opponents.
Earlier this month, the 5C rugby team showed up to the Las Vegas Invitational Collegiate Sevens tournament with 11 players on the roster. Most of the other competitors brought at least 20. The toughest teams came from big schools such as University of Texas, University of Oklahoma, San Diego State University, and the United States Air Force Academy. Even a few of the top Canadian collegiate teams made the trip to compete. On paper, the Claremont rugby players stood no chance against these big-name teams. However, anyone familiar with the program would know that a small roster and an unfamiliar name on the front of a jersey would not keep the Dragons out of the mix. Unfazed by the competition, Claremont finished fourth overall after losing in the quarterfinals to Texas. Although they represent all five Claremont Colleges, the Dragons were the smallest school in the field of 50.
Even in local games, facing bigger schools is the norm. While most of these teams have more players on their roster, Grant Frazier PO ’16 thinks that in some ways, having fewer players can be an advantage.
“Teams will usually sub players in during the course of a game in order to prevent a drop-off in production caused by the physical wear and tear,” Frazier said. “Our team doesn’t have this luxury because of our limited numbers. The extra effort we have had to put in to compensate for our lack of numbers has made our team extremely close.”
The physicality and flow of rugby demands stellar teamwork. In the case of the Dragons, familiarity between teammates can compensate for a lack of depth. As a team composed of student-athletes from three different schools, an outsider would think that chemistry could be an issue. For Frazier, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“There is a type of brotherhood and a bond that is exclusive to rugby that I have not encountered in any other sport I’ve played,” Frazier said. “The physicality of the game and the importance of team chemistry breeds great respect among the players and coaches.”
While chemistry and an extra motivation to prove themselves worthy of top-level competition have played key roles in the Dragons’ success, the program is certainly not without top-level talent. Jordan Badia-Bellinger CM ’13 is a two-time collegiate All-American.
Growing up in London, Badia-Bellinger got a head start playing rugby. He learned the fundamentals across the pond and brought his skills over to the United States. After playing in high school in Brookline, Mass., he enrolled at Claremont McKenna College and joined the team. Since then, he has been a pillar of the program both on and off the field, and his skills have opened up opportunities for younger players.
“Jordan has a huge impact on the game,” Frazier said. “Teams that we face have to pay a lot of attention to him and often devote two or three players to help stop him, which helps create opportunities for other players on the team to have success.”
Having grown up in a country where rugby attracts more attention than it does in the States, Badia-Bellinger has some insight into why the Dragons receive little recognition despite their success.
“I think that our status as a ‘club’ sport on campus has always been an obstacle for receiving recognition from both the school and the student body,” Badia-Bellinger said. “At the same time, rugby is still a relatively obscure sport in the United States, even though it’s growing fast. The fact that most people have never seen a rugby game or even heard of rugby before they came to the Claremont Colleges doesn’t make it easy for us when it comes to both recognition and recruiting.”
Along with Badia-Bellinger and Frazier, other major contributors include Justin Meng PZ ’13, Boris Lo CM ’15, and Joel Uili PZ ’15. Leading the Dragons are Head Coaches Joe Ognall and Scott Bracken, both of whom played rugby at San Diego State. Bracken was an All-American as an Aztec and went on to play for the USA rugby team.
With all of the pieces in place, it looks like the Dragons are only going to get better.
“We already punch well above our weight,” Badia-Bellinger said. “And I truly believe that we could be a top-10 program.”