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Central Washington University Rugby Photo.

For all rugby programs in the country, the work never stops. Whether it’s planning for the next season, recruiting the next prospect, or preparing for the next match, the game on Saturday may be the simplest task. As one of few independent clubs in the top tier of college rugby, Central Washington University is welcoming the tough test and challenge of a new season.

In Ellensburg, Wash., the fall semester at CWU doesn’t even begin until September 19, but head coach Todd Thornley and his staff have been working since the early summer on the varsity rugby program. It’s Todd’s third year at CWU and 2018-2019 will be program’s second year back in D1A after a four-year stint with the Varsity Cup.

Earlier this year, the Wildcats played to a 7-6 regular season record and advanced to the D1A National Playoffs as the #15 seed.  In the opening round match against second-seeded Life, the Running Eagles ran roughshod over CWU to a final tally of 87-7.

“Last season was a year of learning for our young team as 75% of the roster were underclassmen,” Thornley reflected. “Improvements were made as our freshmen gained experience and a solid foundation has been set. No one likes losing but sometimes you got to get it wrong to get it right, so it’s important our returning student-athletes use those experiences to catapult us forward.”

While playing summer 7s, the planning for the 2018-2019 15s season already had begun in June. Since CWU is outside the conference system, the Wildcats had to wait until most of the D1A master schedule was sorted out.

Being an independent has its advantages and disadvantages. “We have not been invited to any conferences nor formally applied,” Thornley said. “Our isolation geographically makes it hard for conferences to see us a viable member which is understandable. The major advantage of being independent is our flexibility to travel to quality opponents and hopefully portray high-level collegiate rugby. The disadvantage is every game we play has a big effect on our ranking and playoff chances.”

Once the D1A master schedule was released in July, the coaching staff got on the phones to coordinate with individual programs. “Scheduling is a challenge, but the other D1A teams, for the most part, have been very accommodating,” Thornley discussed. “We are grateful for those on our schedule who sees the benefit of playing us and traveling also.” 

“It can be difficult both logistically and financially as we fit around other programs’ conference commitments. However, we do have some good relationships with some great programs that result in home and home or home and away series that form the spine of our season. This year’s schedule is one of our best yet in terms of competition and also player welfare allowing our student-athletes to balance academics and rugby.”

The first priority for the Wildcats was nailing down tests against Saint Mary’s and BYU. Away games to California and Utah are expensive and take a lot of work so Thornley doubled up each trip to maximize the team’s effort. Starting with California, CWU will play UC-Davis on January 3rd and then two days later venture an hour south to Moraga to battle Saint Mary’s on Saturday.

Next, Thornley worked out a home and away with BYU. The Cougars will first come to Ellensburg on February 9th and CWU will return the favor in late March. Like the California trip, the Wildcats will play BYU in Provo, Utah on Thursday, March 21st and then drive to Orem for a Saturday match versus Utah Valley.

For the final match of the season, Grand Canyon University will visit CWU on March 30th and as part of the agreement, the Wildcats will play at GCU next season. Thornley attempted to schedule a match against Lindenwood, but the logistics didn’t work out.

“Obviously, we want to play some good strong sides and it’s just finding out who is available and close enough geographically that we can make it work financially for them to come to us or vice versa,” Thornley stated. “To be honest, I’m happy with the balance we have in our schedule. All the D1A games we have are going to challenge us in different ways.”

So what will the team look like this season? It all starts with recruiting the new crop of players. “Recruiting is an on-going process and will always be the lifeline on our program,” Thornley said. “We are fortunate Rugby Washington produces great talent and are close proximity to Oregon and California which are also hotbeds for talent. Hawaii also is a good area we try to pull out of too.”

“Internationally, we will have a total of six true internationals from the United Kingdom and New Zealand and two more who have USA passports from Zimbabwe and Ireland. We are embarking on our fifth year of Varsity status and have great support from our athletic department and wider university. Currently, we are having our football stadium being renovated so we can also play our home games on a new turf, which will just add to the experience our student-athletes get here at CWU.”

With about 20 new freshmen making their debuts with the Wildcats this season, the coaching staff is looking forward to working with all of the recruits, especially Henry Foster, Albert O’Shannessey, and Alex Cleary. Foster, a flyhalf from England, and O’Shannessey, a flanker from New Zealand, played at the highest levels abroad and were standouts on their respective high school championship squads.

As for Cleary, the flanker may be the prize of the class. Cleary is a high school All-American from Washington and played for the USA Falcons at the Rugbytown 7s last month. He was also selected to represent the USA at the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina in October.

“Alex is a very talented rugby player that a lot of people know about,” Thornley said. “It’s going to be exciting to see him develop because he’s got all the tools, but more importantly, he’s in the right head space and understands the work that will take him to bigger and better things than here.”

The freshmen will replenish the ranks for CWU, but it will be the returning 23, which includes 12 starters from last season, that will lead the club. “We only graduated six players last year so we have a good mix of experience and young talent which should allow us to compete and climb up the rankings,” Thornley said.

“Leaders will step up during our preseason with their work ethic, selflessness, and performance. It will be an exciting development as we continue to build our identity. Our freshman class is very exciting and talented, however, they will need to have a good fall in order to make an impact this coming year, which is something they are all capable of.”

One of the leaders Thornley spoke of is junior lock Deven Marshall, who was captain last season. Marshall was named as a third team D1A All-American and he is looking to improve on that this year. “Deven understands his role really well and has a work ethic that fits his role of lock in terms of being physical on both sides of the ball. He has a good sense of where the team is at and what the team needs, only talks when he needs to and is going to be a really good leadership piece for us.”

The backs will take their cues from sophomore center Jack Wendling. He played a ton of minutes as a freshman and competed with the Men’s Junior All-Americans this summer. The coaching staff is eager to see what Wendling has learned and how he can make his teammates better with the experience he gained.

The coaches will get their first look at the new squad on September 24th and the staff will focus intensely on the individual before implementing the system the Wildcats will run this season. “We will be in the weight room three times a week and out of the field four to five times a week. A lot of work needs to be done from a strength and conditioning and individual skill development perspective before playing a few pre-season exhibitions and installing our attack and defensive shape. The fall is a very important time of preparation for us.”

Getting all 44 players fit and on the same page will be challenging. CWU will play a series of three exhibition games against Washington State, Stars Rugby, and the Spokane Razorbacks prior to its first game after the New Year.

The Wildcats’ vision statement is: Develop young men with strong work ethic, commitment, and character who love the sport of rugby, and unquestionably dedicate themselves to becoming the best at everything they do on the field, in the classroom, and as individuals of our community.

CWU will start the season ranked #14 in the D1A and the potential is there to return to the playoffs this season. “We will have to wait and see, we have a lot of work to do before then and will have a better idea after our first month of the season,” Thornley concluded. “Opportunity is there for us to have a good year, but I just want to take it one day at a time and try to get better every day at everything we do.”

1/3/19UC-DavisDavis, CA
1/5/19Saint Mary'sMoraga, CA
1/19/19Cal PolySan Luis Obispo, CA
2/9/19BYUEllensburg, WA
2/16/19Utah State UniversityEllensburg, WA
2/23/19Utah Valley UniversityEllensburg, WA
3/9/19Colorado State UniversityEllensburg, WA
3/21/19BYUProvo, UT
3/23/19Utah Valley UniversityOrem, UT
3/30/19Grand Canyon UniversityEllensburg, WA