Life University’s undergraduate rugby team is only in its third year of existence. In that short time, Life has emerged as a premier college program in both 15s and 7s. While many coaches, trainers and staff played a huge role in that success, not to be overlooked is the contribution of Life’s first, and so far only, team captain: Colton Cariaga.
He began playing rugby at the age of 12, having grown up in Charlotte, NC next door to the Aldridge family, who were from England and were trying to start a rugby club in the area. “I loved football and played it all my life,” says Cariaga. “But somewhere along the way rugby became my passion and I enjoyed a lot of success in it.”
Cariaga became aware of Life while playing for the US Under-19 National Team. One of the coaches on the National Team was Life assistant coach Jason Payne. As Cariaga recalls, “He told me that Life was getting ready to expand its rugby program, and after researching the school, it seemed like the perfect fit for me academically, socially and athletically.”
At that time, Life’s undergraduate program was still on the drawing board. But that did not hinder Cariaga, as he was able to break into Life’s Super League lineup. Playing with and against players much older and more experienced was nothing new for Cariaga.
“Being a younger brother growing up, I had to keep up and always felt like I had to prove myself. My older brother used to rough me up pretty good, so I think I just developed a toughness,” he said.
That drive and toughness did not go unnoticed by the Life coaching staff. When the undergraduate team transitioned from conception to reality, Life Director of Rugby Dan Payne knew exactly who he wanted leading the new team.
“Colton’s passion for the game and commitment to upholding a high standard were evident from the first day on the practice pitch,” says Payne. “He might not have known it at the time, but we wanted to push our players upward in all aspects, and he had the combination of on-field ability, and off-field organization and maturity that we needed.”
Like all captains, Cariaga leads first by example – on the pitch, in the locker room, and in the classroom (he has a 4.0 average each of the last three quarters in the Coaching Psychology program). A good leader also knows when and how to effectively communicate with his teammates.
“That’s probably the hardest part of being the captain,” says Cariaga. “Demanding excellence from others is sometimes met with resistance, but that’s what we are striving for at Life.”
Excellence is not a product; it’s a process. For Cariaga and the team, their mantra is one of continuous improvement. It seems like more than half the games are blow-out victories. While a huge win looks great in the match report, there is oftentimes a big difference between results and performance.
“We will have games where we win by 80 points, but we are sloppy and make a ton of mistakes,” says Cariaga. “Likewise we may be in a close, highly competitive contest, but we execute well and gut it out. That’s a performance we can be proud of, despite the scoreline.”
Cariaga admits that being captain was lonely at times. “Early on, when we first started, I was feeling a lot of stress with being the captain,” he recalls. “But I soon realized that I couldn’t do it alone. Fortunately, the original five or six of us truly understood the commitment and dedication it takes to achieve excellence, and as a group we have been leading this program from its inception. I may wear the captain’s armband, but I’m not the only leader on this team.”
Payne concurs, adding, “Colton has grown incredibly as a player, but I’d say he has grown infinitely more in his ability to be our captain. A captain in rugby is unique because you have to manage the game on the field, you must hold your teammates accountable to the various standards we set as a program, and you must also serve as a conduit between the coaching staff and the players. Colton is an actions guy – he walks the walk, so to speak.”
As Cariaga’s tenure as captain comes to a close at the end of this year, he has certainly set the bar very high. Says Payne, “Although Colton will be leaving from an eligibility perspective, I’d like to think his legacy will carry on in the many players he has led over the years. I’m sure there are several players who look forward to carrying on the high standard he has set, and look for continuous improvement in themselves and their team – just as Colton has done.”
Until that day comes however, Cariaga and the Running Eagles will continue on the path toward excellence. Despite the successes already achieved, there is still room for improvement. “Continuous improvement” Cariaga reminds us. That is the bar set by Life’s first and only undergraduate captain.
This story was originally run on Life's website.