By Peter Schwartz
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When you think about Fordham athletics, certainly basketball, football and baseball come to mind. But what you may not know is that the sport of rugby has been around the university since 1962. Over the past few years, the interest in rugby on campus has grown tremendously as the program continues to enjoy substantial success.
Over the last 15 years, the Rams’ 15s rugby squad has won three conference championships (2003, 2004, and 2009) while the sevens team has captured titles the last two seasons and is headed to this weekend’s Collegiate Rugby Championship in Chester, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia.
It will be the school’s first appearance in the championships, which will be played Saturday and Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium.
A big reason for the Rams’ success is Andrew Gheraldi, their director of rugby, who has presided over the program’s meteoric rise, not only in the sport but also in the attention given to it on campus.
“We have a very positive relationship with our athletics department due to the excellent work of assistant athletic director Mike Roberts,” Gheraldi told WFAN.com. “He has allowed us to grow a robust program that competes on a national level.”
Fordham heads to the championships this weekend to compete with five other Rugby sevens clubs in the College Challenge bracket. The Rams will battle with Villanova, West Chester, Drexel, Rowan and Mount St. Mary’s. At stake is the chance to qualify for next year’s main men’s field.
With all of the recent success the Rams have achieved, the one thing Fordham has not had to do is scrounge around for players.
“Over the past few seasons, we have had several training sessions with over 100 players and have often sustained numbers in the 60-player range,” Gheraldi said. “The sport is picking up in popularity, and we certainly saw an uptick in interest over this first Olympic cycle.”
This is a huge weekend for Fordham rugby.
After celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012, the school has had the vision to grow the program to the point where it could compete for conference titles and then ultimately for national championships. With a strong showing this weekend, Fordham could take a big step forward in realizing its goals.
“We are incredibly excited to participate in the 2017 Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship,” Gheraldi said. “We have had success at the conference level over the past two years, but we have not been as successful stepping onto the larger stage. We are working to change that at this year’s CRCs.”
With players such as team captain A.J. Shoemaker, leading scorer Nathan Fisher and reserve Max Zhitnik, the Rams finished 13-2 overall this season and power their way to Philly off of back-to-back Empire Rugby Conference sevens titles.
Zhitnik is a fascinating story, as his father, Alexei, played 16 years in the NHL, including for the Islanders. The junior went to high school on Long Island and wrestled, but was inspired to play rugby when he saw the sport on television. During his freshman year at Fordham, he gave rugby a try.
And Fordham couldn’t be any happier that Zhitnik took a chance on a new sport for him.
“Max has been a great force for us off the bench this season, and he is really just learning the game,” Gheraldi said.
The Rams are hoping for better results this weekend after they finished in 12th place overall at the USA Rugby’s tournament in Colorado. The championships are nationally televised and will draw more than 30,000 fans over the two-day rugby festival. It’s an amazing opportunity for the growing program to show what they can do on a big stage.
Considering just how far the program has come over the last decade and a half, Fordham rugby has become a huge success on the field and continues to gain in popularity on campus.
Rugby isn’t a strange word around the university these days. Everyone loves a winner, and the Rams are doing just that on the rugby field.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow Fordham men’s rugby at @FURFC.