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The newest varsity program is a little different. It’s the first of its kind, really. While well-funded programs have cropped up at the likes of Mount Saint Mary’s, Louisiana State-Alexandria, and St. Bonaventure’s club team has gone varsity, Iowa Central Community College was becoming the first ever two-year varsity program in the nation.
Like many of its predecessors, the impetus for ICC is an enrollment boost, evidenced by the athletic department’s inclusion of other non-traditional sports like rodeo, taekwondo and sports shooting. The same sparked rugby teams at Davenport, American International College and Lindenwood, now well-entrenched programs which were at the forefront of the varsity wave.
Where ICC stands out is as a community college. There are no tried and true statistics available about how many high school rugby players matriculate to two-year colleges versus four-year schools, but it’s safe to say there are quite a few.
(Author's note: As a former high school coach of a club program which pulled predominantly from suburban public schools, I’d estimate about half of my players who went on to attend college chose a two-year option. For them and most like them, the fork in the rugby road equates either to a step straight up to the men’s club game or not playing at all. Sadly, my experience was that most chose the latter.)
While ICC’s varsity status is new, rugby on community college campuses isn’t. Sierra College and Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California have both had teams for years. And just down the Pacific coastline the Santa Barbara Rugby Academy has worked to create a varsity-like environment for students at Santa Barbara City College.
SBRA’s sent several players to big four-year programs and bright rugby futures, but the shining alum is Alec Gletzer, who transferred to Cal to win some Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships, become an All-American, play for the USA and earn a professional contract.
But Iowa Central is the first true varsity rugby program at a two-year institution, with a full-time coach, scholarship money to offer and all the trimmings.
The Tritons are led by coach Brent Nelson, who started at the school in another capacity. He played basketball at ICC in the ‘90s before taking up rugby with the Iowa Falls men’s club in 2000, and he told school administrators when he was hired in 2014 that he’d like to get a rugby team going on campus in some fashion or another. Those discussions intensified over time, and by the fall of 2015 he was recruiting rugby players from the on-campus population and robust Iowa high school 7s scene.
This spring, the Tritons officially took the field for the first time, playing a full 7s campaign. Their first tournament was at South Dakota State, and they lost their first game handily to the University of Iowa. But they’d storm through the rest of pool play to reach the final and upend the Hawkeyes to win the title.
They enjoyed some more success in the spring, but ultimately fell short in their NSCRO regional in Wayne State, Neb., that which produced eventual champion New Mexico Highlands. This fall, the Tritons are playing their first 15s season, hoping to make a deep run in the NSCRO playoffs.
Already, they’ve rolled up some pretty good wins, beating Iowa, Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Western Iowa Tech, Creighton and South Dakota State. The lone loss was a competitive away match at three-time defending DII national champion Minnesota-Duluth.
In winning, the rugby team is fitting in well with other sports at the athletically-driven Iowa Central. The National Alliance of Two-Year Collegiate Athletic Administrators (NATYCAA) hands out a directors cup every year to the most decorated athletic department, across all sports, in the land. ICC has claimed the title five of the last six years.
“We’re not just competing here to give the guys something to do. We want to have a championship atmosphere,” Nelson told Rugby Today.
“My whole thing has been, since the day we decided we’re going to go forward and say let’s do this, let’s do it the right way. We’re not going to do this halfheartedly. When I go out and recruit kids, that’s the thing I tell them. This is going to be a rugby program, not some place where if you show up for practice or if you don’t, it’s no big deal.
“My mission is to give people a varsity experience, rather than a club experience.”
For many Iowa high schoolers, the in-state option for such a program hasn’t always been there. There are Iowa and Iowa State, both of which are academically rigorous schools. But not everyone can get into those universities or afford them, and their rugby programs are club in every way.
So Iowans with high rugby aspirations have looked out of state, like Southeast Polk product Deion Mikesell. As a freshman at Lindenwood he earned a cap for the senior national team, proving there’s plenty of talent in Iowa, the home of such former Eagles as Tom Billups and Paul Emerick.
With Iowa Central, there’s now a place, in-state, that’s relatively affordable and accessible for those looking for that varsity experience. And while ICC will always predominantly pull from the state of Iowa, its recruiting tentacles will reach far and wide, too.
With the increased cost of a four-year education and a larger demand for skilled workers – ICC offers academic programs revolving around HVAC, auto collision, restoration and repair, welding, etc. – there is now a varsity collegiate rugby option to service the entire spectrum of interests and goals. So far, that’s worked on the recruiting trail for Nelson.
“[Players and parents] just liked the mission that we had, which was to be highly competitive, and then possibly for kids that are able, we want to put them on to four-year schools,” he said. “We also have a number of kids who want to come here, play varsity rugby for two years and then join the workforce.”
Here’s to hoping more community colleges follow in Iowa Central’s path.