Look at the four teams left in the DI-AA semis and you see teams with varsity status, close-to-varsity status, and solid financial backing.
Lindenwood is varsity. Western Washington has a new regime and is closing in on a status that might not be varsity, but is as good as. Dartmouth is a longtime rugby club, but a very longtime rugby club, with excellent financial backing, its own fields and clubhouse.
And then there’s Central Florida. Somehow the University of Central Florida has made the final four also, beating Tennessee 30-17, and Clemson 24-20. They did it with a talented, unified group of players, playing for a regular college club.
Last weekend was a tough one for UCF. The players had to ask for several final exams to be rescheduled. Players banged out exams on Thursday night and then drove up to Knoxville, Tenn., for the playoffs. After returning to Orlando, many players had to load up on exams on the following Monday.
“The professors were really understanding,” said club president Jason Ross. “We got letters from the club sports administrator and we were able to explain that this was a national playoff weekend. But the guys had to work really hard.”
The rugby was a good escape from worrying about final. And perhaps the need to focus helped them. Certainly they played well, and they had something to prove.
“We have a bunch of really good rugby athletes coming out of high schools in Florida,” said Ross. “Look at Life University – they have a bunch of players from Florida. I played against Jake McFadden and Cam Dolan. We know those guys, and they’re not all going to Life.”
Those athletes and their Coach, Jason Granich, arrived in Knoxville on a mission.
“We resolved to play as a team no matter what,” Ross said. “We were going to not be selfish. And we were going to have nothing left when we came off the field. Our style is to move the ball and spin it wide, but it was really wide and that was tough to do. So we changed our approach and made do with what we could do.”
Flanker Sam Levi was a tackling machine for the Knights all weekend, and inside center Dan Irion was huge offensively.
“He was never taken down by just one tackler,” said Ross. “He carried guys, and got us moving forward.”
Meanwhile flyhalf Harold Chiffoleau was, said Ross, “a warrior.”
“He was hurt but he stayed on the field and played amazing defense.”
Inspirational performances were everywhere, and Ross said the players all showed their toughness. The result? A trip to the DI-AA semifinals, and a lot of respect on campus. The local news came out to training to do a piece, and they feel they are playing for respect of not only themselves, but the state of Florida.
“We know what we’re capable of,” said Ross. “I think we showed it.”
What’s next for a club team on campus? Fundraising, of course. With the final weekend set for May 11, the Knights are hard at work building on school and alumni support to make the trip to Bowling Green.