By Peter Schwartz
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Raise your hand if you knew that Army had a rugby team.
I’m guessing there aren’t too many hands up in the air right now. That’s OK. Until last week, I didn’t know it had one, either. But not only does Army have a team, it now has a top-five program in the country as it gets ready for this weekend’s Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship at Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia.
The event takes place over two days with pool play Saturday and playoff rounds Sunday. All in all, it features 44 matches with 20 of the best teams in the nation, including three-time defending champion California and other top-notch programs such as Boston College, Maryland, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State, Temple and UCLA.
And now, Army’s program has grown to the point where it is one of the teams in the dance. The Black Knights finished the regular season with a record of 9-5 and 5-2 in the Patriot League.
“We’re extremely excited to be in the CRCs next week,” said head coach Matt Sherman. “Our expectation is that we give full measure in every game and improve as the tournament goes on. If we can achieve those goals, we believe we can be competitive.”
College rugby has become the fastest rising sport among men and women on college campuses. The Collegiate Rugby Championship was designed to be part of a nationwide effort to build American rugby talent and prepare athletes for the Olympics. It’s certainly working, as 15 players who have participated in the championship have gone on to play on the U.S. national teams.
There are a few Black Knights to keep an eye on at the CRCs. Army’s playmakers are Jake Banarhall and Andrew Borer. Luke Heun is the club’s blue-collar player, and Jake Lachina is a strong finisher.
“I think our greatest strength as a team is that all players can step up and deliver in any given game, and we will count on all 12 to do so to be at our best in the CRCs,” said Sherman.
Army will begin its quest for the championship Saturday with a trio of matches in pool play against Arizona, St. Joseph’s and arch-rival Navy, which is scheduled to start just after 5:30 p.m.
This will be the second meeting of the season between Army and Navy. On March 26 in Annapolis, Maryland, Army came away with a 27-22 win as Lachina became the first Black Knight in program history to score four tries and 20 points in a game.
And now the rivals meet again, this time in the postseason.
“Playing Navy always means the most to us,” said Sherman. “We are coming to the CRCs with two missions, to beat Navy and win the championship, in that order.”
The men aren’t the only competitors this weekend at the Collegiate Rugby Championship.
Rutgers and Princeton are among the 16 schools that will compete for the women’s title. Other schools include defending champion Penn State, Temple and Notre Dame. Women’s rugby, which is now in the Olympics, has become a hotbed in New Jersey. The New Jersey Blaze have become one of the top club programs and will send several players to Rio this summer in rugby sevens.
The sport is back in the Olympics for the first time after a 92-year absence.
Speaking of Rutgers, new head football coach Chris Ash will participate in a safe tackling clinic on Sunday with youth football players and rugby players showing how the sports can learn from each other to help eliminate or reduce the risk of concussions.
Another local angle this weekend is that the CRCs are run by White Plains-based United World Sports. The company has seen the sport of rugby grow in terms of sponsors and participation.
“This directly impacts the attendance at our events, television viewership and purchases of our Rhino Rugby apparel and equipment,” said Jeff McDowell, senior vice president of United World Sports.
This weekend’s event is expected to draw more than 30,000, so the strategy of keeping it in Philadelphia has worked out well.
Just like how Omaha has become the home of the College World Series, the CRCs in Philadelphia have been a big success because rugby is rooted at the college level. The Northeast Corridor has become a hotbed of rugby because of the high level of concentration of colleges in the area.
“The venue is top-notch. The area supports the event. It is a tremendous setting, and we have room to expand with consistent dates every year,” said McDowell. “We are looking forward to continuing to grow each year as well, and Penn Mutual’s support has been instrumental in helping the event grow.”
There are plenty of local storylines for this year’s Collegiate Rugby Championship, including Army’s highly ranked men’s team, the women’s teams from Rutgers and Princeton and the event itself being run by a local marketing company.
Throw in an O.A.R. concert Saturday and a weekend-long fan festival, and you have an event that continues to grow each year.
For more information on the Collegiate Rugby Championship, visit the tournament’s website at http://www.usasevenscrc.com.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow the Collegiate Rugby Championship @USASevensCRC.