Ruggers have rich history at BG, want more exposure with school

Is it possible that BG could be fielding one of the top 10 programs in the nation and be a powerhouse in the Mid-American Conference year in and year out?

If that’s true, could it also be possible that this program has gone largely unnoticed by BG sports fans?

The answer to both questions is yes.

For nearly three decades, BG’s club rugby team has been the most successful program the university has to offer.

Their track record is a proven one. They have won the MAC a staggering 25 years in a row. In four of the last six years, they’ve been a national finalist. So far this season, their overall record is 14-0.

Years ago, they came up with a team motto. The term, in Latin, is “nulli secundus.” It means second to none.

To be second to none requires a certain level of dedication. According to coach Roger Mazzarella, who played on the team in some of its earliest days, the players have won so much because they are willing to commit to the work it takes to be successful.

Who are these hard working players?

Mazzarella fields a roster of ruggers with diverse athletic backgrounds. The team consists of former football players, cross country runners and other sports that wouldn’t always be translated into rugby.

There are also players that come to BG just to play club rugby. Mark Viviani, a sophomore who played rugby all throughout high school, chose BG for that reason.

“The program is well known nationally,” Viviani said. “It has a high reputation.”

How does the team get people to come out?

They recruit just like any other sport at the University. According to Viviani, word of mouth has been the number-one way to reel in new players.

“We get a table every year in the Student Union,” Viviani said. “If we see someone who looks like they can play we talk to them.”

Team captain Ian Gagnon has sometimes taken word of mouth to a bolder level.

“In class I’ll talk to somebody I don’t even know and ask them if they are interested,” Gagnon said.

The desire to compete beyond high school has also been a selling point for BG rugby.

“I think we appeal to their [prospective players] desire to continue their athletic careers,” Mazzarella said. “No matter what sport they played in high school, some aspect of what they did before applies to rugby. The players know they’re walking into something organized.”

Another thing that attracts players to the club is the camaraderie that goes along with playing and being with the other guys.

Just by going to practice, one can see first hand how well everybody gets along. This is not just a result of playing games together. Mazzerella often has the players, and sometimes even their parents, over to his house to dinner. In recent years, players have bonded by taking overseas trips to places like Wales, England, Ireland and South Africa.

Team unity is also shown on the field. The BG club rugby team is unique in the sports world in that every player on the team plays each week. This can be done because the team has A, B, C and D squads.

“It’s [playing time] one of the most important parts of this club,” Mazzarella said. “The guys know they’re going to play. It helps because if a guy gets hurt, the next guy has experience and can step up.”

Over the years the team has gone somewhat unnoticed compared to the other sports the school has to offer.

According to Gagnon, the fact that it’s only a club sport contributes to the lower level of interest. He also said that rugby isn’t something most kids grow up playing, and that the sport has been slow to develop in America.

The players will admit that there’s not much the school can do to get rugby noticed more than it has been.

Viviani said that the sport is getting bigger on its own, and that it’s slowly becoming more popular at the high school level.

Although the sport isn’t as recognized, Mazzarella believes that the school has done a pretty decent job in taking care of the team. Some of the benefits the team has received include their own field and some use of training facilities.

“We get more than a lot of other schools get,” Mazzarella said.

With all the success, will the university ever make rugby a varsity sport and drop the club label?

Players like Gagnon and Viviani are skeptical of that decision being made any time in the near future.

Mazzarella believes that the team has certainly earned it, and the idea will have to be sold to the University.

“As a club sport we spend $55,000 a year for a full schedule, including travel, with the players driving themselves to games,” Mazzarella said. “With a full schedule, a salary for coaches, better training access and team transportation by bus or van, the cost to run the team as a varsity sport for a year would be closer to $100,000.”

Whether the team becomes a full-on varsity sport or not is unknown, but it hasn’t affected the players, as evidenced by their undefeated record five weeks into the new season.

No matter what, Gagnon is just happy to play rugby.

“I’m proud to be a captain on this team,” Gagnon said. “I’m proud because of the guys on this club. This team is successful because they work hard, they’re scrappy, and they do what it takes to win.”

A proven, winning tradition and a high level of team camaraderie make the BG rugby team an interesting choice for a student looking to get involved athletically on campus. For Mazzarella, it represents an opportunity to give something good a shot.

“Anybody who gives rugby a try will find out that football is boring,” Mazzarella said.