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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ambitious Utah Collegiate Conference has Big Expectations for Growth

By Daniel Holzhauer

The strong Polynesian community and lack of precipitation make Utah a fertile ground for the growth of rugby in the US. The state already provides talent to the highest levels consistently, and the newly formed Utah Collegiate Rugby Conference is hoping to have a big hand in nurturing future talent and continuing to send them to the international level.

“Our goal is to produce as many All-Americans as we can, and Eagles. However we can help the US team,” said commissioner Bill Ungricht. “Our goals are really to improve our coaching development, player development and referee development for all levels. We have a lot of talent, and stuff, in Utah. I think we haven't been able to keep up with the quality of coaching and the quality of referees on that level.”

Utah is already home to two of the best college teams in the country, in Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, and Utah Valley State has had success in Division II, but most teams will be pushed to compete at the next level when high-level competition between the teams has been limited.

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“This year has been really nice,” said Jeremy Lister, coach of the Dixie State College rugby club, “The Utah union was a bit of a mess before the new conference. Bill Ungricht has just done a fantastic job.  It’s been a bit of an adjustment for everybody, but I think he’s done a really good job just trying to get everybody used to the new conference. But, for us, it’s been a huge bonus because before we weren’t really allowed to play teams like BYU and Utah, some of the bigger teams, and we could have competed with them.”

The Utah Collegiate Rugby Conference will have nine teams for this season: BYU, Dixie State College, Idaho State University, Salt Lake City CC, Snow College, Southern Utah University, Utah State University, Utah Valley University and Weber State University. The conference hopes to add UNLV next year to round out their numbers.

BYU, who will compete in the Varsity Cup, will enter their second side in conference games and will not be eligible for postseason play. This will leave the conference more wide open and lead to the solidification of interstate rivalries. But the overriding feeling within the conference is one of cooperation.

“[At the Red Rock Tournament] we ended up joining with a lot of other teams and because of that we kind of built up a friendship, I guess you can say, a fellowship with them and they gave us some tips, which really helped us,” said Steven Yesel Rodriguez, captain and scrum half of the Snow College club.

One of the biggest reasons to strengthen the level of college rugby in Utah is to make the best use of the abundant talent and entice those students that do not go to BYU and Utah to stay within the state. High school rugby has seen huge growth across the country and Utah now has over 40 clubs.

“With high school programs getting stronger with rugby, we're seeing more and more kids that are interested in coming to play,” said Brad Paulson, the adviser for the Salt Lake City CC club. “With a really large Polynesian community here in the Salt Lake Valley, we get a lot of those folks coming and playing, and we get a majority of our players from the Polynesian community. They are great players with a lot of them playing either on the islands or with their dads and bigger brothers that played there.”

Even with the development of high school rugby, the colleges in Utah face the same challenges of recruiting and fundraising as any other club. Salt Lake City CC, which has never competed full-time, will face further challenges competing at the DI-AA level as a community college.

Paulson, whose son started the team at SLC, said, “Being just a two year college, community college, we have, you know, a lot of transfer in-and-out of students. A lot of students, because of community situation, just don't have a lot of money to come to school, so they come for a semester and then they have to leave to save up and come back again. So continuity is a real problem for us.”

The conference will also help teams build a relationship with their school’s administration. It’s important for teams to fight for access to fields and resources, but it is a delicate balance to spotlight the broad, international appeal of the sport without expecting too much at once.

“The biggest thing is, you have to keep them happy and play by their rules, do what they ask, and you want to bring whatever positive recognition to the school and show that you are helping out the University.  Not so much always asking them for help, but they want to see what you can bring to the table for them,” said Ungricht.

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