October 20, 2013

RUGBY | Ruggers Ready For Season Ahead

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Despite its impressive history, the Cornell rugby football club — which has been an active and competitive team on capus since 1879 — has received little recognition at Cornell. Senior and president Pierce Janssen said he is hopeful, though, that things are starting to change.

“With revitalized alumni support, new equipment and one of the country’s best rugby coaches in Paule Barford, Cornell ruggers are finally starting to open some eyes,” he said.

The team hopes that its 4-0 Ivy League record — a product of what is described as exceptional coaching, new attitude and legal violence on the pitch — will attract new fans to support the team and see why rugby is such an incredible game.

This is not Coach Barford’s first rodeo. Barford has a CV that stretches from CTB to Trafalgar Square. But Cornell has provided the former coach of the U.S. National Team with a new challenge.

“It’s a shame that Cornell, a program that has bred an Olympian, has not given the sport more attention,” Barford said. “We have an Olympic sport that may not be well known in this country, but is the third most popular worldwide. It’s soccer, the Olympics and then rugby.”

Barford took over as head coach for Ron Schassburger, who came in at a time when the team was just a directionless hodgepodge of college kids. He is now serving as the assistant coach.

“Coach Ron taught a lot of us the fundamentals of rugby,” Ryan Cleary ’13 said. “Contrary to what people may think, it’s not like, ‘kill the carrier.’ There’s a lot of skill involved, and Coach Ron was more than patient with us while we were learning.”

Schassberg has appreciated the sport for a long time.

“I love this game,” he said. “I’ve been involved with it in one way or another since 1960, and not much has changed. It’s been a third class sport for too long, and I would love to see it get the recognition it deserves.”

Barford, who saw the team play several times last year, was impressed with the job that Schassburger had done so far but says he sees room for improvement, by bringing a new level of intensity to the team.

“I make sure that practices are harder than games,” he said with a laugh. “Rugby is a player sport. It’s not like football, where the coach is actively involved in every decision on game day. My goal for the program is to get them to a point where I can sit in the stands with a cup of tea, and just watch them play.”

Senior captain Benno Sorenson took note of this change as well.

“The energy [Barford] gives, the structure he has provided, basically everything he’s done has helped us commit to the success we’re having,” Sorenson said. “In general, I think we’ve succeeded in creating the kind of team environment where personal commitment and hard work is not only demanded, but is an accepted responsibility by each individual player. That atmosphere has allowed us to play to the best of our abilities and we’re seeing the results we’ve always felt we were capable of.”

While every player has stepped up this year, one who deserves particular acclaim is senior Chuck Motzer.

“In my athletic career, I don’t think I could find someone with more passion than him,” Sorenson said of his teammate. “In our first game, he scored two tries before splitting his head open to which he simply walked off the field, taped up, and came back on to score another try. No one has given more effort, both in commitment and physical sacrifice, than Chuck Motzer.”

Motzer’s cut would later require 21 stitches.

Motzer, Sorensen, Janssen, Nick St. John, Andrew Sapozink and Russell Browning Jr. are all seniors who Coach Schassburger thinks have the ability to play at the next level.

“They’re all great, but in different ways,” he said. “Benno is a seasoned veteran, Pierce has sustained some terrible injuries over the years, but always comes back stronger than before, Motzer and St. John are just phenomenal athletes, and Sapozink has gone from someone who knew nothing about the game, to an anchor up front. It will be a shame to see them go.”

In the short-term, the Red is eying an undefeated Ivy season and a top seed in next semester’s Ivy Rugby Championships. As for the long-term, the team’s future looks bright. With a solid group of new recruits and proper direction from Barford and Schassburger, Cornell rugby hopes for a strong season.