Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass men’s rugby set to open season Saturday with championship aspirations

Massachusetts men’s club rugby coach Anthony Neverson has a simple plea for students.

“Give us a shot, give us a chance,” he said.

The Minutemen are set to begin a new season this Saturday at home against Middlebury College, and the team has set lofty goals for success in 2012.

For Neverson and assistant coach Phil Ciccarelli, it’s clear that this season has all the makings of something special.

“I think we have a core group of guys,” Ciccarelli said. “I would say there’s about 60 of them that have been more than willing to put in all the effort that’s needed to make a good run at a championship.”

But this coaching staff isn’t taking anything for granted going into this weekend’s home opening match.

With the official opening of rugby practice, beginning on Aug. 27, came a full week of three-a-day practices for the over 70-member squad.

“You trying to kill all of your players before Middlebury, coach?” shouted one player huffing and puffing his way through the pre-practice wind sprints Neverson jokingly refers to as “flogging.”

“I’ve got to get you fit for Middlebury, son,” Neverson shouted back.

The coaches point to a number of attributes about this promising team that lead them to believe big things are in store for UMass in 2012, but they are especially quick to heap praise the unit’s senior leadership.

“These guys are very experienced, they’ve played the game for a very long time and they’re very intellectually sound about the game,” Neverson said. “Everybody’s on the ball, everybody’s in contact and attend the meetings that they’re supposed to and don’t shirk any responsibilities. So I feel really good about them for that.”

Two of those veterans, senior forwards captain Kyle Merrigan and senior backs captain Alec Hudson know what’s at stake when the team takes to the pitch this Saturday to face the visiting Panthers: a first chance to prove itself worthy of the championship-contender label.

“I was on the team that made nationals my freshman year, and that’s an unbelievable experience,” Merrigan said. “Obviously, that’s what we’re shooting for. Any season you come in, you’re shooting for the best possible outcome, and making nationals would be that.

“I think we have a very good chance of doing it this year,” he said. “ Actually, I feel more confident than I did freshman year. I feel really good about it.”

Hudson agreed.

“We’re going to take it one game at a time, but we do have high hopes,” he said.

Coaches and players alike recognize the potential of this rugby team, and it’s not difficult to see why.  The team lost just three seniors to graduation following the 2011 season and optimism about the current players’ abilities is high.

“We have a lot of athletes,” Hudson said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Merrigan didn’t hesitate to identify the team’s strengths.

“I’d say fitness, speed and just raw talent,” he said. “We have a lot of athletes coming out, and that’s where you draw the line. I’d say we’re going to run around some teams.”

For all the talent the Minutemen possess, the players understand that after just three weeks of practice, challenges surely lay ahead.

“I would say what we have to work on is just coming together as a team,” Merrigan said.

Apart from the ultimate prize of bringing home a national championship, there is one common goal for the Minutemen this season: Highlight the exciting nature of the sport and try to get some more fans to attend the matches, which are held on the fields just behind McGuirk Alumni Stadium.

“We’re trying to get the school this year more familiar with rugby,” Hudson said.

Merrigan and the other players understand that part of the challenge inherent in increasing the popularity of rugby on campus lies in altering attitudes about the sport’s checkered reputation.

“A lot of people say that rugby is about drinking and that kind of thing,” Merrigan said.  “But I know everyone’s been taking it very seriously. That’s the way we’re trying to change this sport, that’s the way we’re going to try to change this club at this University.  We’re trying to make it more about the games, the season and being a winning squad, rather than being about a club that only has a good time.”

Now with the school’s football games being played a Gillette Stadium, the team is hopeful that rugby can become the main attraction in Amherst.

“It’s one of the most exciting games that you could possibly watch,” Ciccarelli said. “If you’re a fan of lacrosse, fan of soccer, and you like the contact of football, this is a game to be at.”

The Minutemen have only three home games on the fall schedule, including Saturday’s match. But they also have Southern Connecticut State (Sept. 22) and Boston College (Oct. 27) on dock.

Daniel Malone can be reached at [email protected].


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