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The little club team that could has reached the national spotlight.
On Saturday, the Harvard men’s rugby club will meet Army in the final four at Stanford. The Crimson hasn’t gone this far since 1993.
Should Harvard win, they will face either Air Force and top-ranked Cal-Berkeley— the only varsity rugby team in the nation—for the national championship on Sunday.
Harvard has lost only twice in the fall season—both times to Army. Nonetheless, the Crimson is unfazed.
“Army is a really disciplined team,” said Harvard co-captain, junior Marc Wayshak. “They’re mechanical about the way they play rugby. But we’re going to catch them off guard with our defense. It will make all that fall apart.”
Indeed, many saw the early season losses as learning experiences.
“As much as the losses hurt, they were a reminder that we had a little ways to go,” said senior Jake Kersey. “We refocused towards building to our ultimate goal, to qualify for the nationals.”
The Crimson has reached that goal and then some.
In the Sweet Sixteen—two weeks ago at Stanford—the 15-seed Harvard upset second-seeded Utah, in the first round, and went on to beat fifth-seeded Penn State by an even more decisive margin of 33 points.
“A lot of people, teammates and onlookers alike, didn’t really believe that we could do it until the spring season came around,” said Kersey.
Playing in the nationals seemed almost impossible when the program was reinstated four years ago after being temporarily disbanded.
“We’ve been building towards this for the past four years,” Kersey said.
The process has not been easy.
As a club team, rugby does not have the financial resources, recruiting process, or practice priority assigned to teams with varsity status.
While Army has enough players to field an A, B, C, and D squad, Harvard will show up with only two squads, A and B.
And while Army has trained under an entire team of coaches, Harvard rugby cannot hire a single coach for the whole year.
Nonetheless, Wayshak says the Crimson has benefitted from its underdog status.
“In a lot of ways, it can make the experience better,” Wayshak said. “You’re not spoon fed, and you have to work for everything you get.”
The Crimson has done its share of hard work.
“We don’t have a coach during the offseason,” Kersey said, “and with the nasty weather, the captains had to organize tough indoor workouts.”
Forced to accomodate varsity athletes, Harvard’s players met on the indoor track late at night to do sprintwork.
During spring break, they went to England to play against top British clubs.
“We got a chance to play against some really good teams and we really learned a lot about the game,” Wayshak said. The England trip was also a bonding opportunity.
“Our team really came together [in England],” Wayshak said.
The Crimson lineup is well-balanced, but a few standout players have been crucial to Harvard’s success.
Senior back Peter Danner and freshman center Tim Mailer wowed spectators on the west coast with fast and clever maneuvering against Utah and Penn St.
At first, Kersey said the crowd at Stanford was cheering for Utah.
But by the end of the game, when Mailer or Danner would get the ball in their hands, the stands erupted in cheers.
“This weekend, being at Stanford will feel like going back to home field,” Kersey said.
The Crimson players will be able to watch the game from the comforts of their own homes when it airs on college sports network, CS-TV, on May 14.
“That’s really cool,” Wayshak said.
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