Four Eagles make their presence felt at college rugby's biggest stage
"I know they look up to me and have a lot of respect for me, and I have a lot of respect for them."
BOULDER, Colo. – Fourteen of college rugby’s best teams will ascend onto the pitch at Stanford University from May 9-11 for the 2014 USA Rugby Emirates Airline College National Championships.
Of course, none of these programs could reach the National Round of 4 without the guidance of a tremendous coaching staff, but there is one unique feature shared by four of this weekend’s Championship-chasing teams and that is their head coach has been capped by either our Nation’s elite women’s or men’s side – the Eagles.
With a spot in the Women’s Division I College National Championship on the line, American International College will battle Stanford University May 9. Current Women’s Eagle Mel Denham coaches American International, while Matt Sherman, a member of the Men’s Eagles 2003 World Cup team, leads the Stanford Cardinal.
On the men’s side of this weekend’s College Championships, Life University faces off against Saint Mary’s College in a rematch of last year’s D1A National Championship match. Head Coach Dan Payne directs the Running Eagles from Life, while Tim O’Brien has been running the Saint Mary’s program since 2001. Payne was a backrow forward for the Eagles in the 2007 World Cup, and O’Brien was called on to represent the United States in 1980 and again in 1983.
College rugby has been growing and improving competitively by leaps and bounds, and a lot of that growth can be attributed to coaches, like the aforementioned Eagles, who are passing their knowledge of the sport onto a younger generation.
For Payne, he knew from a young age he wanted to be a coach.
“I’ve always had the mindset of wanting to coach,” explained Payne. “I grew up in a single-parent family, but I had phenomenal coaches. I had great male role models that were my coaches, and I was really indebted to them and the profession of mentoring and teaching through sport.”
Payne, who was also at the helm at San Diego State University for a number of years, relishes the opportunity to coach college-aged athletes.
“It’s a passion of using rugby as a vehicle to help develop habits that will lead people to not only be successful rugby players, but to use those same habits to make those individuals successful people when they graduate our program,” described Payne. “That’s the real goal and reward.”
Recently reengaged with the American International Women’s Rugby Club after participating in the Women’s Eagles’ two-match Can-Am series versus Canada, Denham’s team qualified for the National Semifinals after winning the Women’s DI Midwest Regional. Like Payne, Denham believes coaching the game she loves at the college level is especially gratifying.
“They have a lot of dreams, and it’s cool to be a part of their lives when they are going through this transition from being a kid to becoming an adult,” said Denham. “I know they look up to me and have a lot of respect for me, and I have a lot of respect for them. It’s just a cool thing to see them becoming adults.“
These National Championship Series-participating coaches are not only improving the growth of rugby in America in the here and now, but their tutelage is sure to inspire others to follow in their footsteps. Payne believes many of his current and former players will make great rugby coaches down the road, including Colton Cariaga.
Cariaga, a former AIG All-American and a 2013 graduate of the Life rugby program, is currently playing and coaching in Ireland. The halfback is earning rugby-specific coaching certifications, which he plans to put to use when he returns to the States with the hopes of developing the sport at the youth, high school and college levels.
Not to be forgotten in the reunion of sorts of former and current Eagles are Scott Lawrence and John Everett, who are assistant coaches for Life and Saint Mary’s, respectively.
Lawrence, who Payne describes as, “one of the best, if not the best rugby coach in America,” was a consistent contributor for the Men’s Eagles during their 2006 season.
Everett is the longtime forwards coach for Saint Mary’s, and played for the Eagles in the 1987 World Cup. His knowledge and experience helps the Gaels’ forward pack consistently outplay seemingly larger and physically stronger units.
With a wealth of international rugby experience coaching some of the top college programs in the country, there is sure to be some exciting play on the pitch this weekend at Stanford.
The 2014 USA Rugby Emirates Airline College National Championship takes place from May 9 – 11. A schedule of all 13 matches is available at www.USARugby.org. Each match will be streamed live and aired on USA Rugby TV.