WHEELING - A little after 1 Saturday afternoon, the Wheeling Jesuit University rugby team took to the rain-soaked pitch at James LaRosa Stadium for the first time in nearly two decades. Before a crowd of about 1,250 fans, the Cardinals kicked off their inaugural season as a Division I varsity sport with a contest against West Virginia University.
WJU trailed most of the game, but managed to fight back in the final minutes to edge the Mountaineers, 10-6, for a victory that coach Eric Jerpe said is well-deserved.
"They've worked hard and they deserve everything they won," Jerpe said. "(I'm) very proud of the boys for just coming all together less then a month ago."
Wheeling Jesuit’s Tim Litton tries to break away from a group of West Virginia players Saturday.
Photo by Tony Viola
Wheeling Jesuit decided to give the program a re-boot in December 2011 after an 18-year hiatus.
Before rugby went on an extended absence, the sport was a successful student-organized club that competed and beat teams such as Penn State and Ohio State.
"We have a great athletic tradition at Wheeling Jesuit," President Richard Beyer said. "When we went through our strategic plan, we looked at possibly (adding) football but as we started to get deeper into the thinking, we saw that we played rugby here in Wheeling at a high level during the '60s, '70s, and '80s. So it made sense. Our alumni backed it and so we thought that we would bring rugby back as a varsity sport at the Division I level.
"We're just really proud of the way the men played today."
WVU took a 6-0 lead into halftime and still led 6-3 heading into the final minutes of play.
Then in the 79th minute, Dante Walters rushed up the sideline and through the Mountaineer defense to record a try for the Cardinals. (A try is a 5-point play similar to what a touchdown is in football expect that ball actually has to touch the ground.)
Following the score, John Stapleton's conversion attempt (much like an extra point, but is worth two points) was good and Wheeling Jesuit was able to hold on to record it's first varsity victory.
"When we started playing as a unit and not just as individuals, that's when it started to click for us," Jerpe said. "We're a very young team. (We) just need to trust one another to do the right things on the field. Once they get a little bit more gelled together, they'll be good.
"Most of these kids are just coming out of high school last year, so they're playing at a higher level against a very well established I-AA (rugby) school. There's a little bit of a difference in the rules too from high school to collegiate. (They're) just getting used to that."
Though the majority of his team are freshmen, Jerpe expects the squad to make some noise in its first year.
"At the end of the season we hope we'll qualify for the Division I-AA 'Sweet 16' as an at large bid."
If the team does advance to the postseason, they'll have plenty of support behind them. Both Jerpe and Beyer were impressed with the days turnout.
"Most rugby games aren't well attended, but this one was," Jerpe said. "I'm very pleased to see it."
"(It was) incredible," Beyer added. "Really a full house. The students were really supportive and proud. We were really, really pleased."
And for those who could not attend, Jerpe offers you an extended invitation.
"Come on out. We'll teach you everything you need to know. It's a good time. We play both in the fall and in the spring so when football season is over, we'll still be going in the spring.Come get you're football fix out on the rugby pitch."
The Cardinals schedule includes many I-AA schools such as the University of Maryland, Ohio State, and national powerhouse Penn State.
"Next week we take on Millersville and that will be another good test to see how we do against another I-AA school," Jerpe said.
WJU will return to Wheeling on Oct. 20 as it plays host to Notre Dame College.