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Mission accomplished


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The SJU Rugby team poses after winning their first national championship. The Johnnies defeated Duke University 31-16 in the finals on April 28. | Courtesy of Tammy Cowan

The St. John’s University Rugby Football Club is the 2012-2013 National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) Champion after a weekend of hard-fought victories at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo. They edged out the University of Denver 37-35 to reach the finals, where they defeated Duke University 31-16 to take the highest honor available to small college collegiate rugby programs across the United States.

Senior Tom Ortlieb believes this victory was the culmination of an entire college career’s effort.

“Our core of juniors and seniors have been working together for more than three years to organize this group,” Ortlieb said. “We’ve been talking about this specific game since the middle of last year, when we made the decision to drop down a division. We came in with a very serious mindset, and once we got there we decided to just go out and get it done.”

Ortlieb received the Heart and Soul award and made the all-NSCRO team at the scrumhalf position. Four other Johnnies rounded out the SJU contribution to the all-NSCRO group including Nick Gardner, Colin Merrigan, Mitch Thune and Joe Thompson.

Senior prop Nick Gardner also received the honor of tournament MVP. He was humbled and attributed the honor to more than just his own contributions.

“I really only got the award because I scored several times over the weekend, but my team got me there,” Gardner said. “I don’t deserve it any more than anyone else does. Every guy worked as hard as he could to get us close. It’s everyone’s award.”

Volunteer coach Tammy Cowan, affectionately known only as “Tammy” to the team, is confident that Gardner was the right choice for that honor.

“He literally played like he’s never played before, just an amazing and selfless athlete,” Cowan said. “His intensity — playing the full 160 minutes of both games — along with Jake Kerrigan and Tom was just amazing. He literally took the game into his hands and said ‘We’re winning.’ Well deserved MVP.”

She went on explain where the team excelled during their historic run.

“Our line-outs were amazing, totally unstoppable,” Cowan said. “Also, every guy was locked in on defense. Normally teams have defensive lapses a lot, but everyone bought in to what we were trying to do, which led to some of the best defense we’ve played all season. We were organized, structured and dialed in.”

The Johnnies had to reach new heights in every sense of the word to gain this honor, battling the nation’s top competition while enduring altitudes of over 5,000 feet in the process. While their conditioning was certainly no issue for Midwest play, serious precautions had to be taken to ensure the safety of all involved in the championship run.

“We were well conditioned for Minnesota’s altitude, but within the first 10 minutes it felt like a whole game was played,” Gardner said. “It was a big obstacle to overcome, especially alongside coming up from the 17 point deficit we dug ourselves into against Denver. It took a massive effort collectively to make it through that first game because of the score and the climate, but we did our best and obviously things turned out well.”

Cowan explained the rigorous criteria the players had to meet in order to remain functional on the field.

“Each guy had to drink two gallons of water on Saturday night and do hydration tests,” Cowan said. “If they weren’t hydrated enough, they got sent back into the swimming pool where they drank even more water. Much of the win goes to the team doctor Ben Cowin. He gets a lot of credit for the victory. (Senior) Nate King, our student trainer, helped just as much.”

Now that the precedent has been set, Ortlieb believes that additional success is sure to follow.

“We took 44 guys there, almost half of them not even getting to dress,” Ortlieb said. “Those are the underclassmen that will be back in a few years. Now they know how serious you have to work for this, the level of preparation that goes into it. We have the coaching in place, and now it’s their turn.”

Of all players and coaches, Cowan has been waiting for this time to come longer than anyone.

“It’s been such a long time coming, my first national title in 30 years of rugby,” Cowan said. “We had great parents and amazing fans. I’m just so proud of this group and what they have accomplished.”

The game ball now lives at The Middy in St. Joseph.