Posted November 21, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Lord Fairfax CC rugby team makes history with state title

The Lord Fairfax Community College men's rugby team poses with the Virginia Division III state championship trophy following its 21-17 win over Hampden-Sydney in the Cardinal Collegiate Conference tournament championship on Sunday in Virginia Beach. Photo courtesy of LFCC rugby

By Brad Fauber

MIDDLETOWN -- The Lord Fairfax Community College men's rugby team knew it had the talent and athleticism to do some good things this season, but whether or not the Lions believed they would make history this fall depends on whom you ask.

Most of LFCC's players -- many of which are trying rugby for the first time in their lives -- still can't believe that the Lions became the first community college rugby team ever to win a conference and state title, a feat they accomplished by winning the Cardinal Collegiate Conference tournament this past weekend.

But LFCC head rugby coach Aaron Painter and men's coach Stuart Freakley are slightly less surprised at the Lions' most recent string of success.

"I had a feeling at the beginning of the year, based on the athleticism and the raw talent that we had, that we were going to go far and do big things," Freakley said.

It's hard to wonder why Painter and Freakley have so much confidence in the program the duo jump-started just two years ago in the fall of 2011. In their first full season of true competition last year, the Lions narrowly missed out on becoming the first community college to qualify for the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) tournament. LFCC, as a member of the now-defunct Virginia Rugby Union, lost a head-to-head tiebreaker with Christopher Newport, though the Lions did finish the fall season ranked 27th in the nation at the Division III level, a major milestone for the young program.

This fall, the program took the next step as a new member of the six-team Cardinal Collegiate Conference, and a 21-17 win over Hampden-Sydney on Sunday earned LFCC the Virginia Division III state title and a trip to the NSCRO tournament next March.

"For me, I was telling guys from day one when we first started back in the spring of 2011 ... that we can make strides in this game," Painter said. "We can definitely have odds to make it to the nationals. It feels good to know that we did. We accomplished something that isn't easy."

LFCC (5-2, 5-1 Cardinal Conference) faces a unique challenge in that most of its student athletes transfer to larger schools after two years at the college. For that reason, the turnover rate for the Lions' rugby team is extremely high, and each semester brings a fresh crop of athletes who are, more likely than not, trying out the sport for the first time.

That fact alone creates a bit of an unknown as the Lions transfer from semester to semester, but it was apparent to some of the older players that LFCC might just have something following a 43-20 win over CNU in the Lions' season opener on Sept. 14.

"It started out a whole lot better than I thought it would," said junior Brad Oppy, one of five remaining players from LFCC's inaugural 2011 season. "We had a whole bunch of new guys, new talent. A majority of the team had no background [in rugby]. But our first game we just blew CNU out of the water. I thought it was a huge kickoff for the season. I thought it was going to kind of show what kind of season it was going to be, and it sure did."

The Lions followed that win with a disappointing 32-7 non-conference loss to the University of Richmond two weeks later, but LFCC won back-to-back games to regain momentum, including an 85-10 drubbing of Roanoke College on Oct. 26.

Suddenly, even the most inexperienced of LFCC's players were beginning to see things click on the pitch.

"Once us new guys got the taste in our mouth of victory and what was coming ahead, what was in sight for us, I guess we wanted it as much as the older guys," said freshman Kare` Summers-Butler, a recent Skyline High School graduate who is playing rugby for the first time this fall. "And we wanted it for the older guys. All of the older guys put in a lot of work and dedication to this team, and we definitely owe a lot to them."

Even when LFCC fell for the first time in conference play to Hampden-Sydney on Nov. 2 -- a game in which nothing seemed to go their way -- the Lions didn't get down on themselves. The Lions were forced to play without a coach (their bus broke down on the way and Painter was forced to stay behind), and yet LFCC still lost by just two points, which served as a wake-up call and help the Lions realize their full potential.

"We needed that Hampden-Sydney game. We needed to lose it," said Dylan Roberts, a native of Cape Town, South Africa and a lifelong rugby player. "We needed to feel what it feels like to play without a coach, to just thrive on each other."

With its newfound vigor, second-seeded LFCC topped CNU, 20-7, in the first round of the Cardinal Conference tournament in Virginia Beach, setting up a rematch with No. 1 Hampden-Sydney in the tournament finals with a trip to the NSCRO tournament on the line.

LFCC's 21-17 win over the Tigers secured a first-round matchup with Mount St. Mary's in the first round of the national playoffs on March 1.

"To me it's really cool. It feels to me like we really made history, because rugby is such a young sport in America," Oppy said. "We are pioneers of what, in the future, will be a mainstream sport in a America."

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD

Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily | nvdaily.com | 152 N. Holliday St., Strasburg, Va. 22657 | (800) 296-5137