When the Wabash rugby team lost 31-12 to John Carroll University in the semifinal of last year’s conference tournament, they were devastated. After an otherwise unbeaten season, the Blue Streaks put an end to the Wabash’s hopes of a first trip to nationals.
So when the Little Giants once again came up against John Carroll, this time in the final of the 2023 tournament, the Wabash men saw their opportunity—a chance for revenge.
The team traveled to Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, April 1, to compete in the Allegheny Rugby Union tournament, the final regular season event of the spring. On the line? An automatic berth to the National Collegiate Rugby tournament, a competition no Little Giants team has ever made.
Wabash received a bye in the first round and went straight into a quarterfinal game against Frostburg State University from Maryland. The game was a whitewash, and the Little Giants secured a 45-0 victory. The semifinal wasn’t much harder. Against Slippery Rock University, Wabash emerged 26-17 victors to progress further than they had this time last year.
“After losing to IUPUI in the championship game of our home tournament, it left an unsatisfying feeling in our stomachs,” said team captain Brayden Goodnight ’23. “So as we were practicing last week, we had a little fire underneath us. It’s really just that Wabash Always Fights mentality.”
Things weren’t going to be so easy in the championship game. With a guaranteed place in the national tournament at stake, Wabash came up against a familiar foe—John Carroll.
“We have had this game in our heads since last spring,” said Goodnight. “We’ve replayed that loss over and over. And throughout the season, we’ve used that final score as motivation. Our goal was always to beat John Carroll, and that’s what we set out to do.”
But things didn’t exactly get off to the best of starts. Only a minute into the game, one of the John Carroll backs plowed through Isaac Salinas ’23 and ran free for a 50-meter try. John Carroll’s conversion was no good, making the score 0-5 early on.
But the Little Giants pushed hard, and earned their just reward immediately from the kickoff. Goodnight kicked high and regained possession, running in to level the scores. The conversion put Wabash into the lead, the halftime score 7-5 to the Little Giants.
And in the second period, Wabash thoroughly asserted their dominance. From the kickoff again, this time it was Fil DeFrenza ’23 who took back the ball and passed it off to Lucas Budler ’24 for the try. Not long after, Goodnight collected the ball from a scrum and extended Wabash’s lead to 17-5.
John Carroll pulled back a try and conversion to make the score 17-12, but by then it was too little, too late. The damage had been done, and the Little Giants were ARU champs.
“Sweet taste of revenge? Better than sweet,” said Matthew Brooks ’24. “It felt so good to finally lift that trophy and be able to show the students here at Wabash that rugby means business.”
John Carroll may have loomed large in the Wabash psyche all year, but when it mattered it was the Little Giants that finally emerged victorious. However, the victory wasn’t a product of luck; it was a result of a year’s worth of training and planning.
“John Carroll is, without a doubt, a strong rugby team and a good program,” said Budler. “However, this season, we were much more prepared to face them as we played a tougher schedule before the conference tournament to sharpen up and really dissect our weaknesses. Essentially, we lost to learn how to win. This worked well for us as we were mentally prepared, united and committed to playing a game of winning rugby against a bigger and stronger program.”
The team will need to utilize all of that experience again as they look forward to the national championship on the weekend of April 28-30. And though the schedule has yet to be determined, Wabash has already begun its preparations.
“Yes we won conference, and yes we’re ecstatic about that, but now we have our next goal to meet,” said Brooks. “So, it’s back to the grind, and we’re excited for it. We’re back practicing, we’re back to watching film and we’re back in our routine for the next few weeks.”
This year will mark the first time a Wabash rugby team has ever made the national tournament, an achievement made all the more remarkable when one considers the team is a club sport with no official head coach. Despite a two-decade long push to make rugby a varsity sport, the efforts have been to no avail.
With this being the club’s first time at nationals, there is a real sense of stepping into the unknown. But the mystery, Goodnight says, cuts both ways.
“I’m not really sure what to expect to be honest,” said Goodnight. “I don’t know which teams we will play, but that doesn’t really scare any of us. The other teams don’t know us either, so I think we can take a few by surprise.”
The NCR national tournament gets underway on Friday, April 28, at the University of Maryland. All games will be live streamed and The Bachelor will provide live coverage of the entire weekend.