Photo Courtesy of Elisha Lancaster
Does Middle Tennessee State University have a rugby team? And are they any good?
The answer to both of those questions is: Yes.
From skinless forearms to dislocated knees or shoulders, the MTSU rugby team has persevered and advanced to the Elite Eight, vying for a spot in the National Championship game on May 7.
MTSU’s rugby team will take on Notre Dame College (Ohio) on April 23 in Bowling Green, Ohio, in the USA Rugby College 15’s National Championship. Should the Blue Raiders win, they will advance to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, to compete for the National Championship.
The Blue Raider rugby team has been a club sport since 1980, but has seen exponential growth in their talent pool of players, allowing them to compete nationally against the countries’ best rugby teams.
“At the university, we’re still considered a club sport, but we participate nationally,” said MTSU rugby club head coach Jody Hensley. “We’re very fortunate here at MTSU that rugby has been here for 35 years, so we have a very strong alumni group. They are very active and they actually operate under the name, ‘Middle Tennessee Rugby Alumni Foundation.”
“We have an endowment fund with the university, and [the Alumni Foundation] holds fundraisers all throughout the year through different events to provide scholarships that we award to certain players,” Hensley explained. “So just like the football team, but the only difference is we aren’t under the athletic department.”
MTSU’s rugby club has reached the Elite Eight for just the second time in club history, making a win next weekend historic.
“I’m excited,” MTSU senior captain Josh Pentecost said about reaching the Elite Eight. “At the end of the season, you want to be in a position to play for the National Championship, and that’s where we’ve put ourselves right now.”
“For me, as a senior, this is my last shot at it so I’m relishing my time here,” he continued. “But at the same time, we don’t want to just be happy to be here, we want to go to the next level.”
Hensley and the Blue Raiders began a conference of their own, the South Independent Rugby Conference (SIRC), with teams in the surrounding southern region to make travel easier and more affordable.
The SIRC was comprised of 10 teams when it was first formed, but is now down to nine teams after FAU dropped out due to lack of funding and support. Among the nine current schools in the conference, Florida State and Georgia Tech are some of the big-name schools that headline the conference.
Or so you’d think.
“The view would be that if you’re a big school — a Georgia Tech, Florida State, Alabama or somebody — you’d think MTSU could never be in a conference with them,” Hensley said. “We would destroy those guys [in rugby], and we did destroy Georgia Tech twice last year. We beat Florida State in the conference playoffs. We’ve played a lot of big schools over the last few years.”
MTSU, Memphis, Kennesaw State, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern, Florida International, Florida State, Central Florida and South Florida make up the SIRC. But Georgia Tech and Florida State, perennial ACC powerhouses in other sports, do not dominate the SIRC.
MTSU led the conference, along with Florida International, this past season with a 6-0 regular-season conference record, while Florida State and Georgia Tech finished 1-5 and 0-6, respectively.
The Blue Raiders lost to FIU in the conference championship game this season on an FIU blocked kick with seconds remaining, giving the Golden Panthers a 17-12 edge. But MTSU got its revenge, beating FIU 32-8 in Miami in the Sweet Sixteen.
“People like winners, so if our team continues to push and win and people get involved in rugby and see what it is, I think it’ll [become] addictive [because] it’s fun to watch,” Pentecost said.
MTSU rugby travels to Bowling Green, Ohio, on April 23 to battle Notre Dame College in the Elite Eight for a chance to advance to their first-ever Final Four.
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To contact Sports Editor Connor Grott, email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Connor_Grott.