By Brad Fauber
MIDDLETOWN -- Lord Fairfax Community College's men's rugby team was formed just two years ago, but the program has already begun to make a mark in national collegiate competition.
After serving a probationary period during the fall 2011 and spring 2012 seasons, the Lions experienced their first true taste of meaningful competition last fall. The result was surprising -- given the general lack of rugby experience on the team -- as LFCC tied for first in the Virginia Rugby Union division of USA Rugby's National Small College Rugby Organization.
LFCC failed to qualify for the playoffs, but the Lions did finish the fall 2012 season ranked No. 27 in the NSCRO, collegiate rugby's equivalent of the NCAA's Division III.
Head coach Stuart Freakley said the team's quick rise has been the result of a combination of factors.
"We lucked out. We have the greatest group of kids. They are totally dedicated," Freakley said. "We've got some really good leaders who have stepped up on the team and I think that really helped. I think we got lucky with the players we have, and also with the coaching staff."
LFCC tied with Christopher Newport University for the top spot in the VRU during the fall season, but the Lions lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to CNU, which awarded the top spot to the Captains. Only the winner of each division qualifies for the NSCRO playoffs -- which are held during the spring season -- and LFCC finds itself out of the postseason race as the spring schedule gets under way.
But that doesn't mean the Lions have nothing to play for in the coming months. LFCC is using the spring season as an opportunity to compete against some higher-level competition, and the Lions' schedule contains several contests against Division I and Division II schools.
LFCC's season begins today against one such team, as the Lions will play the University of Richmond at 1 p.m. at LFCC's athletic fields behind the school's campus.
Aaron Painter, who serves as the universal head coach of the men's and women's rugby programs, said the spring season provides a chance for the team to improve while facing tougher teams.
"The goals will always be the same -- to compete, to train, to get technical skills down," Painter said. "Of course everybody plays to win, but we don't have a 'win at all costs.' Every game is an opportunity. It's not a win/loss thing -- it's an opportunity."
LFCC will have several opportunities to compete against upper level teams, as the Lions also have road contests at Virginia Military Institute, George Mason University, James Madison University and Virginia Tech on their schedule. LFCC will also compete in the Frostbite Tournament held in Lancaster, Pa., later this month.
Jon Conard, the last remaining member of the Lions' inaugural team, praised Painter's willingness to schedule higher-level competition.
"He doesn't set us up with all community colleges or really low-end programs," the 25-year-old Conard said. "He sets us up against teams like Penn St., which is a national powerhouse in Division I. Those are my favorite games. I like playing the guys who, in theory, we shouldn't be on the same field with and then we go out and a lot of times we hold our own."
The Lions will still have the chance to compete in a national tournament during the spring season, as LFCC has received a bid to compete in the first-ever NSCRO 7's Championship.
The experience will be yet another new one for members of LFCC's program, as the tournament will utilize the Olympic 7's format, which consists of teams of seven players instead of the usual 15 that the Lions are used to. The seven-on-seven style will be featured in the 2016 Olympics.
Painter said the Lions will compete in the qualifying round of the tournament on April 21. The winners of the eight regional qualifying matches will advance to the championship rounds of the tournament held in early June in Philadelphia.
Freakley said LFCC's Sevens team will consist of about 15 players from the team's current 25-man roster, while the rest of the team will continue to practice and prepare for the fall season.
Both Painter and Freakley said that the Lions compete to win games, but the ultimate goal of the program is to send players to four-year institutions. Painter and Freakley hope to reach that goal by taking advantage of the opportunities that the spring season offers.
"The main goal for the spring is to just teach the game, have some great matches, let the guys have a lot of fun. We have some really fun matches, fun tournaments lined up for them. It's a little more low key than the fall, but it will still be pretty intense because we've got some good stuff lined up."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org