The surprisingly small Pennsylvania college that’s been kicking ass in rugby

The Collegiate Rugby Championship Sevens tournament comes back to Philly this weekend, and the powerhouse team making quite a bit of noise once again is Kutztown University… Wait, really?

The Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships takes place at PPL Park.
(Photo via Jack Megaw/ ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships takes place at PPL Park. (Photo via Jack Megaw/ ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Jack Megaw

Kutztown University generally doesn’t come to mind when thinking of premier athletic institutions, especially when placed alongside the likes of Notre Dame, Penn State, Wisconsin, and the University of Michigan. But the Collegiate Rugby Sevens Tournament is a different story altogether, where this small school with a student body of 9,000, situated a little over an hour from Talen Energy Stadium – the home of this year’s Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship –  dominates year-in, and year-out.

Little Kutztown is a veritable rugby powerhouse.

This year, the team celebrated its 30th winning season in a row, and in that span exceeded 820 wins in the program’s history. The team has graduated 29 collegiate All-Americansand funneled multiple players into the rapidly growing U.S. National Team system.

Obviously there are bigger programs in America. There’s the University of California, which has won the last three Sevens titles, and Dartmouth, which won two before that, holding claim to 18 Ivy League championships. Cal also dominates in the full-sided Fifteens game, having won 27 titles since collegiate rugby began having national championship tournaments in 1980.

But while Cal has had its rugby program since 1882, Kutztown got started a full 102 years later, in 1984. After their first two seasons, the Golden Bears brought in Coach Gregg “Doc” Jones, who guided them to their 30 consecutive winning seasons.

But it’s not the record that Jones is most proud of. In an interview with the rugby website Real-Time Rugby last November, Jones was asked if there’s something he is especially proud to claim about his program:

“It’s been the fact that the kids have come together to form the culture we harbor here, and that’s not only a culture of winning and success, but we tell all the kids ‘Go to Work Every Day,'” he said. “It’s the fact that they learn how to go to work while they’re here, they do a good job of it, and when they graduate, the majority of them are successful and we know that when the leave us they’ll be good citizens and have good families. We’re here to serve and to teach, and we use rugby as the tool.”

It’s that winning culture on and off the field that has persisted at Kutztown, leading them to back-to-back runner-up performances at the CRC Sevens tournament.

And after two years of falling just short, the Kutztown Golden Bears, the upstarts, the new kids on the block, are desperate to dethrone the perennial powerhouse Cal Golden Bears. Yes, both teams’ mascots are the Golden Bears, and the anticipation of potentially witnessing this heavyweight matchup is unbearable.

Philadelphia is well represented in the tournament this year. Temple, St. Joe’s and Drexel, all of which have taken part int he event in recent years, have the potential to make some noise. Temple has been to the tournament every year it has been held in Philly, making this their sixth appearance. With Shield bracket victories in ‘14 and ‘15 (the consolation bracket for teams who finished last in each pool), they are certainly looking to improve upon good showings in years prior.

SJU made their tournament debut in 2013, and have experienced relative success in comparison to the other Philly schools by making it to the Plate bracket in ‘13 (consolation bracket that is one tier below the Cup, which is the Championship bracket), and winning the Bowl bracket in ‘14 (consolation bracket two tiers below Cup). Drexel, having only been in the tournament once before in 2014, made it to the Bowl that year but lost to eventual champions SJU in the first round.

Still, none of the locals have as good a shot as Kutztown.

The Golden Bears aren’t the only relatively local team looking for a title this weekend. Women’s Rugby will also be featured in the CRC Sevens this year, with juggernaut Penn State looking to dominate again. The PSU Lady Ruggers have claimed 10 national titles in Fifteens, and have won the last three Sevens championships. Recent runner-ups Lindenwood and Ohio State University are seeking to finish the job this year and knock off the perennial powerhouse.

The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship Sevens tournament takes place, June 4th and 5th, at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pa. Games will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) over the weekend.

The CRC is part of a nationwide effort to build American rugby talent in preparation for the Olympics. In the past three years, the Collegiate Rugby Championship has produced 15 players who have gone on to play for the U.S. National teams. Rugby Sevens is making its return to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer, following a 92-year hiatus, so this is an excellent showcase for people who don’t know much about rugby and are looking to be introduced to, arguably, the nation’s fastest growing sport, while pulling for a host of local teams, some with a real shot to win.

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