Hear Them Roar: Undefeated Lions Win League

After defeating the University of
California, Riverside 48-20 March 7 to win the Gold Coast Division II
conference and secure the No. 1 seed in playoffs, the Claremont Colleges men’s
rugby team is poised to make a run at the national title.

Both teams entered Saturday’s match tied
for first place in league with undefeated records. The Lions took the game’s first lead with a penalty goal by scrum-half Bobby Chui CM ‘18, which was
quickly overcome by a Highlanders try. The
two teams continued to trade blows, ending the half with a score of 22-15.

We started out a little slow,” said captain
Grant Frazier PO ’16, who plays
hooker. “We were playing into the advantage of the other team, and there came a
point at the end of the first half where we just looked at each other and
realized that we weren’t playing the way that we were capable of.”

With that in mind,
the Lions went back to the basics in the second half, focusing on what they had
done in practice all year. Increasing the physicality of their game, the
players shut down the Highlander offense and limited it to just one additional
try.

“We do this every
game,” fullback Sanders Windham PZ ’16 said. “We’re like ‘Oh my god, dude,
they’re probably good,’ but they’re not realistically as competitive as we
are—they’re physical but they don’t have the athletes or the structure that we
do.”

The Lions’ athletic composition sets them apart
from the other collegiate rugby programs across the country. Most teams
typically have two distinct types of players: bigger, slower forwards and
smaller, quicker defenders.

That is not the
case with the Lions, though. Despite an average weight of over 200 pounds, each
athlete on the roster boasts impressive speed and agility and thus poses a
significant offensive threat, rather than the four or five weapons common to other teams.

The high conditioning
standards of the Lions stem from two professional coaches, Scott Bracken and Jeremy Ognall. A three-time collegiate All-American, Bracken played for the U.S. National Team and has 21
years of rugby coaching under his belt.

Bracken’s depth of
experience has given him a number of important connections in the rugby world
that are integral to the Lions’ success. Through them, he is able to schedule
exhibition games during bye weeks to provide extra practice, bring lauded
coaches to Claremont for focused work and arrange unique athletic
opportunities for his players, including training with U.S. Navy SEALs at the Naval
Special Warfare Command in Coronado, Calif.

“It was brutal, but
very cool in that I think it brought our team closer together,” Frazier said. “It certainly made guys
toughen up, and it made them realize that they could push past what they
thought they could.”

While that
experience was particularly tough, it’s representative of the general level of
effort expected at every Lions practice. Although workouts are not
mandatory, the majority of the team’s players show up to each one with a high
level of intensity. Players cite their
coaches as inspiration for their commitment. 

“A lot of the stuff that you could complain
about on a normal sports team when it comes to conditioning or punitive action,
Bracken does almost all of it with us,” Frazier said. “When we’re doing
something hard, he’ll get down there and do it with us, so we have no way to
really complain about it. He leads by
example.”

Players also
attribute their willingness to devote such time and energy to the nature of the
game itself. Rugby players can be involved in both offense and defense in the same play, unlike football, for which much of the team was originally
recruited to only play one side of the ball.

“As a previous
defensive lineman in high school, the dream was, ‘I’m going to get a fumble and I’m going to score,’ but now with rugby, you can actually realize the
dream,” Windham said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I can get assists; I can play.’ Not only
can I tackle someone, but I can tackle him and steal the ball.”

Comprised of students
from four of the five colleges, including two who attend Harvey Mudd College,
the team unites football players from the Pomona-Pitzer and the
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps programs. While the beginning of the rugby season
features much trash-talking between the players with regard to that year’s
Sixth Street rivalry game, the line between the two teams quickly blur until
there is just one: the Lions. 

As a result of practices and bonding events, the players get a true 5C experience through interacting with people they might never have become friends with on their respective campuses.

“You know, maybe in
football the rivalry is there, but in rugby, it’s not a Sagehen running out there to
ruck over me,” said inside center Gator Adams CM ’17, who also plays linebacker
for the Stags. “That’s a Lion that’s got your back at the end of the day.”

Catch the Lions at home March 21 when they host DIII champion California State University, Northridge in the first round of playoffs. 

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