By EVAN THOMPSON, sports editor
Jacob Bates witnessed first-hand how much it took to get it.
The senior club president of the men’s rugby team knew beforehand the journey was going to be an uphill one, and that it would require effort, involvement and complete dedication from the players and coaching staff.
And they did just that. Now, it’s time for the Wildcats to reap the benefits.
Following the departure of the University of Utah from the Varsity Cup, Central Washington was officially selected on April 5 to join an elite collection of teams in the collegiate rugby world.
The Wildcats (9-1 overall) filled the vacated No. 4 seed in the tournament and will play Division I Air Force Academy (5-2) in the Wester Super-Regional, which will be hosted at UCLA on the North Athletic Field. The match is set for 2 p.m. PT on Saturday.
The long hours spent on the field, recruiting players from out of country, and undeservingly receiving less limelight than the varsity teams on campus shows true resiliency on the part of the men’s rugby team.
But that’s all in the past. Come Saturday, the Wildcats will have their chance to prove to the country what they’re capable of.
Bates, who is in his fourth year with the program and his ninth year in the sport, understands the caliber of the teams they’re up against will be turned up a notch.
“The level of competition is definitely a step up from what we’ve been playing in D1A,” Bates said. “Our highest competition in D1A is St. Mary’s, but when we get in the Varsity Cup every person is going to be tough to beat. We have to play mistake free and play at our A-game to beat those guys.”
Central is led by the coaching duo Tony Pacheco and Bob Ford and standout players such as Bates and U-20 All-Americans Tanner Barnes and Aladdin Schirmer.
“Our coaching staff is completely invaluable to the program,” Bates said. “Without them this would not be where it is today, it would be nonexistent probably.”
But it’s been the Wildcats combined effort that has put Central on the map in collegiate rugby.
“The opportunity gets Central Washington’s name out there,” Bates said. “The Varsity Cup is very exclusive and D1 teams are playing in it, so it just benefits this university as a whole.”
The success Central has found in recent history has allowed for players like Clint Lemkus and Sean Wanigasekara to learn about the Wildcats rugby program and join the cause. Lemkus came from South Africa, while Wanigasekara travled from Sri Lanka. Both of them are in the starting lineup.
If the Wildcats win against Air Force, they’ll play the winner of BYU (No. 1 seed) and UCLA (No. 8) the following Saturday.
Between the two winners, whichever has the higher seed will earn the right to host the semi-final, and the winner of that will move on to the Varsity Cup National Collegiate Championship on May 4 in Provo, UT.
Only eight teams in the country participate in the prestigious tournament: Air Force, BYU, California-Berkely, Dartmouth, Navy, Notre Dame and UCLA.
The Varsity Cup is America’s top collegiate postseason championship, whose goal is to feature the most accomplished programs in college rugby.
And that’s not far from the truth: in the 33-year history of collegiate rugby championships, 31 of the past collegiate national champions have been one of the eight Varisty Cup teams. 1984 was the last year any other team had broken through the barrier and won.
Bates feels Central is better prepared for Air Force, which last won a national championship in 2003, following its final two matches in D1A competition.
The Wildcats loss to St. Mary’s on April 6 wasn’t a game the Wildcats played mistake-free, but they made up for it in their following game, a 21-10 victory over Cal Poly SLO. Cal Poly was last ranked No. 8 in the USA Rugby Top 20.
After months of training, practice, revision, and then more practice, the Wildcats’ season hangs on a thin thread. One loss in the tournament results in elimination, something Bates believes won’t happen without a fight.
“They’re going to be a really fit team, they’re going to be tall,” Bates said. “They’re going to play a physical game just like Cal Poly did. It’s going to be a good match and we’re looking to win like always.”
The Wildcats’ flight will depart on Friday at 6 a.m. They hope to land in the championship match.