New England College rugby team looks to finish job with a national championship

Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2014
For the ragtag New England College rugby team, it was a manhandling. And an epiphany.

The Lions were high on enthusiasm but, as a newly founded team, woefully short on experience. Still, Coach Jeremy Treece had arranged an exhibition with Dartmouth College – an Ivy League powerhouse, and the defending winners of the Collegiate Rugby Championship.

The NEC players had a naïve confidence. It didn’t last. The Big Green outnumbered, outmuscled and outplayed the newcomers to the sport. And as the Dartmouth players celebrated afterward, Treece had a message for his deflated troops.

“I said ‘Hey guys, there you go,’ ” Treece said. “ ‘There’s the bar, it’s that high. Do you want to go for it?’ ”

That was in the fall of 2011. It’s been two and a half years since, and the Lions haven’t lost a match in this time zone. They’ve gone undefeated as they’ve won two straight New England championships, which led them to two Northeast championships, and which now has them in the National Small College Rugby Organization (USA Rugby’s version of NCAA’s Division III) semifinals for the second straight season as the country’s No. 2-ranked team.

Overnight, the small school from Henniker has become a national name, and a program whose quest for its first national championship starts today in Glendale, Colo., against Mount St. Mary’s. NEC is often the smallest school at the tournaments it plays in. It was the smallest by approximately 1,300 male athletes at the NSCRO semifinals last year. The “David vs. Goliath” cliché seems to fit.

The Lions agree – but not that they’re the David.

“We believe that we are the top team to beat,” senior outside center Jay Muñiz said. “We go out there, every game, getting everyone’s best game.”

The Lions couldn’t have come from more humble origins. The team didn’t exist prior to 2011, as a program started in 1981 had disbanded a decade earlier. NEC Athletic Director Lori Runksmeier brought in Treece, who had started the Franciscan University Rugby Program from scratch as a player/coach in 2000, to do the same in Henniker.

Treece went to work. He put up fliers around the school, approached students about playing and scheduled matches with other teams, even with just a blank sheet of paper for a roster.

“I think I asked everybody on campus to play rugby,” he said. “Before I even had a team, I went out and scheduled games because I knew if I didn’t schedule games, nobody would join the team. So basically, I took a risk.”

Anthony MacQueston, a sophomore, was the first to sign up. Nineteen others joined, and NEC had its first team.

“Over the years, seeing what it came from, it’s a huge change,” said MacQueston, a senior center and three-year captain.

NEC only played exhibition games that first fall, including the match against Dartmouth that showed the players what, with focus and determination, they could become.

“We went into the game with some high hopes, and they were just a big and dominant force out there,” said senior flanker Parry Owens, a Keene product. “They just worked well together. They had continuity, so they worked the ball down the field. They destroyed us, and really tore us down, and showed us what it meant to be a good team. I think that set our standards pretty high from the beginning.”

By the next fall, the Lions had joined an NSCRO conference, the New England Rugby Football Union, and they went to work the next two years stocking the roster with rugby players from all over the world. James Tayson and Ky Young, who had played rugby in high school, joined from California and Oklahoma, respectively. AJ Mudford came from New Zealand. Ian Luciano came over from Australia. Daryl Wilson, from Curacao, signed up too.

With experienced rugby players filtering into the already eager mix, NEC was the best team around from the start. Last season, it went undefeated and qualified for the NSCRO semifinals in Colorado playing the standard 15-player-per-side format, and also qualified for NSCRO’s championship in Philadelphia in the Olympic-style seven-player format.

The meteoric rise quickly ran into its first setback. The Lions suffered their first defeat last April in the 15’s semifinals to Duke, letting a 24-15 lead slip away before falling, 25-24, when a last-gasp drive fell just short of the goal line.

“We were so close. We had to get the ball and just run it in. It was our scrum, so it was up to us, and we just, I don’t know what happened. We fell apart,” Owens said. “They ended up getting the ball and kicking it out of bounds, and watching that ball was like slow motion.”

The team that had never lost had another crushing defeat in the sevens a month later in Philadelphia, when North Florida beat NEC, 15-14, in the semifinals.

“The feeling last year was awful, to go that far and lose by one point, then qualify for (sevens) and lose by one point, it was heartbreaking,” junior hooker Ayomide Aimakhu said. “You just go from being in a dream to waking up from a nightmare. There’s nothing to describe, no words for that.”

Again, the Lions had been humbled. And again, they knew how to respond.

“We came back and we regrouped,” Treece said. “Guys came back this year and said ‘The job’s not done.’ ”

The Lions were even better this past fall than in 2012. Led by Muñiz, Rugby Magazine’s small college player of the year, NEC went 10-0, crushed Salve Regina, 42-12, to win the Northeast title in the 15s, and beat Western New England, 29-0, to qualify for sevens once again.

The Lions are back in Colorado, where their dreams fell apart a season ago, and where they’re determined to write a better ending.

“Everyone talks about playing NEC, so being able to take on that persona and just trying to finish, that’s our biggest thing,” Muñiz said. “Having high expectations like that, we just have to finally come through and learn how to finish off a season right.”

There’s a sense of pride among the players that their team has grown this much, this fast, but there’s no sense of shock that they’re winning. There certainly isn’t one with their coach, who knew what his players could become even when they were just learning the game, and let his confidence be known to NSCRO President Steve Cohen while he watched Franciscan play at the 2012 championships.

“I told Steve, ‘We’re going to be here next year,’ ” Treece said. “He just laughed at me.”

They’re not laughing now.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at abonifant@cmonitor.com or 369-3340 or on Twittter @dbonifant.)