Breaking New Ground…The Recruiting Trip

As the WWU coaches looked back on the successes of the first half of the WWU Men’s Rugby Club they confirmed many of their early assessments when they first began the fall training sessions in August.  Foremost amongst those assessments was the need to get more players with rugby experience.

The crew that first reported for those fall training sessions were enthusiastic and they were good, and sometimes great, athletes.  But, for the bulk of the players, their rugby experience was limited to what they had learned by participating in the WWU Men’s Rugby program.

Director of Rugby and Head Coach Paul Horne along with Head 7’s Coach Adam Roberts knew from the get go that identifying and recruiting new players to the program who already had rugby experience at the high school level, and even earlier if possible, was the programs highest priority.

Getting the program up to speed the first few months didn’t leave a lot of time for recruiting but recruit they did.  WWU is fortunate to be situated in a great spot for rugby, we’re near British Columbia where rugby is the equivalent of high school football here in the US, and, high school rugby in the US, particularly on the West Coast, is experiencing a meteoric rise in participation.

Given the WWU program’s limited budget Horne and Roberts figured to concentrate their recruiting efforts in three areas:  BC, Washington, and Northern California.

As mentioned earlier, high school rugby in the states is growing at exponential rates and rugby in the State of Washington is no exception.  And one of the strongest programs on the West Coast, if not the nation, lives right here in Whatcom County, Chuckanut Bay RFC.  Chuckanut Bay is home to the current U-19 State Champion Trophy and that club has placed two members on the US National Team (Shawn Pittman and Nick Wallace) and has another player on the US National U-20 team in Sehome student, Titi Lamositele.  So the Chuckanut players know that they have a great opportunity to further their education and their rugby careers right here in their back yard by coming to Western.  In addition, there are strong U-16 and U-19 programs at Liberty High School in Renton, Valley Rugby Club in Kent, and Rainier Plateau Rugby Club in Bonney Lake.

British Columbia is another story.  The high school and youth players there have several opportunities for college bound students.  Tops on the list would be University of Victoria, followed by the University of British Columbia, and Simon Fraser University but the bulk of the players either go to UVic or UBC and now Western is a viable option as well.  Both Coach Horne and Coach Roberts are very well know in BC rugby circles and have a great opportunity to lure BC high school players to Western.

In Northern California there are over 200 teams and 4,000 players registered in the Northern California Youth Rugby Union (NCYRU).  In the words of Coach Horne “…it is an absolute hotbed of talent.”

The problem is no one on any of the teams in the NCYRU know Western Washington University from Slippery Rock University.  They don’t know where Western is located (best guess was, “…Western Washington?”) let alone anything about our rugby program.  Coach Horne and Coach Roberts had taken the time to send out ‘recruiting packets’ to each of the programs in the area so the players and coaches in those programs would at least have a general idea about what WWU had to offer in the way of educational opportunities and the men’s rugby program.

So the coaches set out early Thursday morning, December 6th, to introduce themselves,  Western Washington University, and the WWU Men’s Rugby program, to the NCYRU teams.  They would concentrate their efforts on that area between Oakland and Sacramento.

During the three day trip, the coaches would make presentations to Lamorinda Youth Rugby, Danville Oaks Rugby, Oakland Youth, Dixon High School, Sierra Foothills Rugby, Granite Bay Rugby, and Jesuit High School.

Thursday afternoon, December 6, Dixon High School (US National High School Champs) gave the coaches a classroom with all the technical equipment needed to show their presentation.  As it turned out, the teacher, whose classroom they were using, had played for Jesuit High School in 1999 when Jesuit toured to Canada.  As Coach Roberts and the coach/teacher continued talking they discovered that they had played against each other when Jesuit played Semiahmoo Secondary School on that tour.

Later that evening Coach Horne made a presentation at the Moraga Library that was hosted by Lamorinda (a club that draws from Layfayette HS, Moraga HS, and Orinda HS), Danville Oaks, and Oakland Youth.  Coach Horne made his pitch to come to WWU in front of a full house of very interested parents and players.  Keep in mind that Moraga, CA is also home to St. Mary’s.

While the Moraga presentation was going on, Coach Roberts had made his way to the Sierra Hills Youth Rugby program located near Sacramento.  Coach Roberts gave presentation to the Sierra Hills players at their training session and was peppered with questions about WWU and its program.

Friday morning the coaches travelled back to Dixon (Dixon is about halfway between Oakland and Sacramento on I-80) to have lunch with a player, and his mother, who had attended the previous afternoon’s presentation.  They were excited to learn more about the opportunities that WWU offered.

After lunch the coaches continued on to Sacramento where they took up shop at a local Starbucks where they met individually with four players from the Jesuit High School program.  These four players were recommended to the coaches by Fred Khasidgian, the founder of that very successful program.  The coaches spent most of the afternoon with these players and two of the players came with their fathers, who had many questions about the school and the rugby program.  Both fathers committed to flying up with their sons after the first of the year for a campus visit.

That evening, and sporting a major coffee buzz, the coaches made their way to another presentation, this time to the Granite Bay Rugby program, which was hosted at the home of one of the Granite Bay parents.  Granite Bay is a suburb of Sacramento and is an up and coming program in Northern California.  Again, there were lots of questions about WWU and the rugby program.

Saturday morning it was time for breakfast with two more Jesuit High School players and their parents.  Since we had mailed the recruiting packets earlier, the families came prepared to ask questions about the school and the men’s rugby program.

Saturday afternoon the coaches headed back towards the airport and stopped at St. Mary’s to watch the Gaels play a game and had a good visit with St. Mary’s coaches Tim O’Brien and Johnny Everett.  St. Mary’s is a school of about 3,900 students and have about 70 players on their rugby roster, three of whom (Nick Wallace, Niki Mihovilovic, and Henry Hall) have close ties to the Chuckanut Bay Rugby youth program.

Then it was on to Cal Berkeley and a visit to their facilities and then dinner at Brennan’s Bar and Deli.  As they were settling in at Brennan’s a voice calls out, “Paul, I heard you guys were here recruiting in our ‘hood’!”  It was Cal’s Team Manager, Jerry Figone, who had heard that WWU was blazing a trail never before taken on the West Coast, actively recruiting high school rugby players.  Jerry was very complimentary of our Western’s play at the 7’s Nationals in Texas and in taking the initiative in undertaking the recruiting trip.

On reflection, one of the things that stuck in the coaches minds was how receptive all these players and programs were to considering WWU.  Right now the players in the NorCal  area have three options if they want to play big time rugby, Cal Berkeley, St. Mary’s, and the up and coming program at Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo.

When asked the question, “Have you every heard of WWU or its rugby program?”  Prior to getting the info packet that had been mailed in early November; all said they hadn’t heard of the school.

After all the personal interviews they were asked where they ranked WWU in their list of choices of schools and WWU came out no lower than third, with a few ranked WWU second, and one listed WWU as his top choice.  All the interviewees committed to applying to WWU immediately and all committed to a campus visit.

Everyone we spoke to made the comment that this was the first time a college rugby program had come and visited their players.  We are hopeful and optimistic that well see some great dividends as a result of this trip.