Theo Smith took over as the head coach of Christendom College’s men’s rugby program in the fall of 2012, and since that time the Crusaders have been working on building their brand. That drive for success amounted to a historic feat this past weekend.
Christendom, which recently joined the National Small College Rugby Organization in a move that marked a monumental step for the program, claimed the championship trophy at the 2017 NSCRO National 7’s Championship on Sunday in Chester, Pennsylvania.
The Crusaders’ title is the first national championship claimed in any sport in Christendom’s history, and it came in the first season that Christendom rugby has competed as a full member of the NSCRO.
“It means a lot,” Smith said in a phone interview on Monday. “We’ve been working up to this now for a couple years, trying to get into a conference, trying to not compete just at the friendly level anymore and just trying to compete for something a little bit bigger.
“Altogether it was an incredible experience for the guys. I mean playing over at the Talen Energy Stadium, it’s just an incredible venue. The fields are awesome. The teams, for the most part, it was pretty high-caliber rugby, and classy rugby as well.”
Christendom’s championship run was capped when the Crusaders beat St. Mary’s College of Maryland, 24-19, in overtime.
Smith said the Crusaders trailed 14-0 at halftime but got on the board with a try five minutes into the second half, though they failed the ensuing conversion.
Christendom then pulled within 14-12 before St. Mary’s extended its lead back to seven with a try with less than two minutes remaining in the game. With around 30 seconds to play, Smith said, Derek Casey’s try pulled the Crusaders back within 2 points, and Joey Kuplack’s successful conversion kick tied the match at 19-all and forced a five-minute sudden death overtime period.
Smith said St. Mary’s chose to kick off after winning the coin flip at the start of overtime and Christendom “marched down the field.”
Michael McMahon, according to a news release from Christendom College, started the Crusaders’ championship-winning scoring sequence when he burst out on a breakaway early in OT. McMahon was brought down as he approached the in-goal area but his brother, fellow senior Joe McMahon, scooped up the ball and dove across the try line for the winning score.
Joe McMahon was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after the match.
“Joe was an animal. … He was just all over the place making tackle after tackle after tackle, scoring,” said Smith, who added that the McMahon brothers combined for three tries against Babson earlier on Sunday in a 24-5 semifinal win that sent Christendom into the championship match.
Christendom, which went 4-1 during the two-day tournament, opened pool play on Saturday with a 26-19 win over Colby College, a 24-5 victory over Wisconsin-Stevens Point and a 19-14 loss to New Mexico Highlands. The Crusaders advanced as the top team in Pool A and into Sunday’s semifinal match after winning the tiebreaker (determined by scoring differential) over Wisconsin-Stevens Point and New Mexico Highlands.
“I think the important thing for us going through the tournament was just kind of playing our rugby,” Smith said. “I mean we’re always kind of the underdogs everywhere we go. People look at us, because we’re a school of 450 people, they kind of look at us and say who the heck are these guys?
“We’re smaller in size too so it’s not like we command a lot of respect from other teams when they look at us,” he added with a laugh. “But we have a lot of physical ability and we work really hard on training. The 7’s such a high intensity, high endurance kind of play, and the guys’ training really pays off and their heart comes through. They have a lot more heart than other teams.”
Christendom’s national championship ended a season that saw the Crusaders – who fielded a roster of 32 players for the first time last fall, Smith said – go 20-4-1 since last September. That mark included a 4-1 performance in the NSCRO 7’s Qualifying Tournament in March, which they won to earn one of the eight spots in this past weekend’s championship tournament.
“It was a very cohesive group. Everyone kind of knew their role and was very confident in everyone else’s ability. They were very comfortable with each other and that makes a big difference,” Smith said.
He added that while he will have to say goodbye to a group of 10 seniors – including “incredible” on-field leaders in the McMahon brothers, Kuplack and Thomas Hepler – he’s eager to see the younger players take on new responsibilities next season.
“It hurts to see seniors, especially invaluable seniors, leave and go on to the next thing, but it’s also really exciting to see the younger guys step up and fill those roles,” Smith said. “Joe and Mikey (McMahon), the seniors on the team, they’ve laid it all out for us now for the last four years. They put their time in. So part of it’s sad, bittersweet to kind of see them go, but it’s also very exciting to see that we have such quality and talent.”