Zac Pelton couldn’t imagine his college experience without rugby.
Pelton, a criminal justice junior and team captain of the MSU Rugby Football Club, said he started playing rugby during his sophomore year in high school and is thankful to be able to continue playing at MSU.
“It’s really shaped and molded my college career,” Pelton said. “I learned what to do in college from the older guys when I was young, and (now I’m) teaching younger guys what to do and what college is all about.”
The MSU Rugby Football Club began in 1964 and has operated as a club sport at the university. Currently, the club is a Division II program and plays in a Michigan-based league.
Because of a limited travel budget, the competition for the club mostly consists of in-state opponents, such as the Davenport Panthers, Michigan Wolverines and Grand Valley State Lakers, among others.
The club took on the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union No. 1 seed Salisbury Sharks from Maryland in the Men’s Division II Sweet 16 tournament last Saturday in Kissimmee, Fla. Although the Sharks dashed MSU’s title chances beating the Spartans 27-19, MSU would go on to defeat the Northeast Rugby Union No. 2 seeded William Paterson Pioneers 45-5 in a consolation game.
Dave Poquette, head coach of the MSU Rugby Football Club, said he started coaching at MSU in 1992.
Poquette said the club faces difficulties in generating interest in rugby because of its inability to recruit high school athletes with scholarships like other schools are able to.
“If we gave scholarships, I’m sure we’d be a rugby power too,” Poquette said. “With U-M and MSU having strong football programs and truthfully the diversion of the tailgating associated with Big Ten football, (it) draws people towards that instead of going into rugby.”
Poquette said the team only is losing five seniors to graduation and expects the team to come back strong for the 2011-12 season.
One challenge facing the MSU Rugby Football Club is its impending move to Division I athletics after next season.
Roger Mazzarella, collegiate coordinator of the Michigan Rugby Football Union, said USA Rugby decided that if a school fields a Division I football program, then the school’s rugby program also must be Division I. Mazzarella said if a school’s rugby program doesn’t move up into Division I, it faces exclusion from postseason competition.
Mazzarella said Poquette has built a strong program at MSU, but has several obstacles to deal with before making the move to the next level.
“They’re what we call an up-and-coming program — they’ve been getting better each year,” Mazzarella said. “It’s MSU — I can’t see them staying in (Division II) after this year. … They have to take that next step up and establish themselves as a big-time power.”
Poquette said MSU hopes to make the move up to Division I after next season while maintaining its current level of competition and budget.
For players such as Pelton, the move to Division I is a welcomed one.
Pelton said although he won’t be able to participate on the team when it moves up, he’s excited to have a goal he had coming in to the program finally realized.
“We’re going to try to recruit athletes who know how to play rugby, and hopefully they’ll help us take the next step,” Pelton said. “That next step is winning the Division II national championship. We don’t want to move up to Division I with any unfinished business.”
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