By Brad Fauber
Christendom's men's rugby team continued its recent string of success in 2013, finishing with a 4-0 record and extending its streak of consecutive winning seasons to four in the process -- but there was something a little different about the program this season, and not just because the Crusaders were limited to only four matches.
The school's rugby team, which began as a student-run club team in 2005 before being adopted as an official varsity sport two years later, finally appears to have some stability at the head coach position in the form of Theo Smith, who took over the position last fall.
Smith, a former rugby player and assistant coach at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, brought with him a level of experience and passion within the sport that had been absent at Christendom prior to his arrival, and his presence made an immediate impact on the Crusaders.
"It was a world of a difference," Christendom senior co-captain Dean Dewey said. "He was fired up about every aspect of the game and he put so much effort into everything. He put more into it than I've seen someone put into a sport at Christendom. The communication was open and he brought a love to the game that we hadn't really had before. He really brought about this love for the beauty of the game and really inspired us all to play at as good of a level as we could."
Smith's first season as head coach of the Crusaders went about as well as anyone involved with the program could have hoped, but Smith admits he was not quite sure what to expect when he took the job at Christendom.
After all, Smith, born in Nova Scotia, Canada, had played rugby since eighth grade, and the overall newness of Christendom's rugby program presented an air of uncertainty.
"I didn't know what to expect as far as the guys' skill level and knowledge of the game," Smith said. "But the guys played with their hearts. I was really impressed with their understanding of the game."
Christendom has continuously made believers out of anyone who has seen them play, as the Crusaders have proven to be fierce competitors over the last four seasons.
Christendom's first winning season came in 2010, when it went 6-2, and the Crusaders followed that with a 6-1 season in 2011 and a 5-2 mark last year.
Over that span, Christendom has achieved victories over schools much larger than itself, and one of the biggest highlights of this past season was a 29-17 win over George Mason University on March 23.
"That was pretty awesome," Smith said. "They're a big school, so going into it we knew they had a big team and they had a lot of discipline. It looked like it was going to be a tough game beforehand, and it was."
The Patriots proved to be Christendom's toughest test this season, although the Crusaders did get a competitive match from Lord Fairfax Community College in their season finale on April 13. The Crusaders won that contest 28-14.
The Crusaders rolled in their first two matches of the season, beating American University 55-5 to open the season before hammering Hampden-Sydney 52-0.
Despite the perfect record, Christendom did have to overcome several obstacles to ultimately reach that goal.
One issue that Christendom -- as well as many other small colleges -- has to deal with on a regular basis is the general lack of rugby experience that most players have when they enter the school as freshmen.
"Nobody grows up in their backyard playing rugby," Dewey said.
As a result, much of the Crusaders' practice time must be used to introduce the basics to those who are unfamiliar with the game.
Christendom began practicing once a week starting last October, and the Crusaders hit the practice field as often as six days a week once they got back from Christmas break.
"It's tough because you definitely have to start early," said James Hannon, a graduate student and co-captain of the rugby team. "Once the season actually starts in the spring, we have to devote a lot of our practice time to the fundamentals."
Christendom also suffered from a lack of depth this season, and the Crusaders were down to just two bench players for their final two games of the season, and many players were forced to play through various injuries.
"It was pretty cool and inspiring to see the guys battle through injuries. At LFCC we had every guy on our team out on the field because of injuries," Hannon said. "That kind of epitomized our season right there."
Smith said he hopes to garner more interest from next year's freshman class in order to build up the team's roster, and he said the program will also get a boost by joining the National Small College Rugby Organization next year, which will result in a more structured schedule and more matches.
Christendom also hopes to have its own rugby field soon, as it currently hosts matches at the old middle school on 15th Street in Front Royal, and Smith is eager to see what next year will bring for the Crusaders.
"I think we're all really excited. The guys played so well and we have a lot of returning talent," Smith said. "Once you start playing rugby, it's a culture that's hard to get out of."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org