Unlikely champions

Akshay Harshe Club qualifies for national tournament in first season

It’s not often to find a true rags-to-riches story in sports. Rarely does a team that epitomizes an underdog actually pull off the upset, go undefeated or win a championship.

But in its first year of competitive existence, the UTD rugby team did all of the above.

The club completed a season-long clean sweep of its opponents as it won the Texas Rugby Union Division 3 Championship on Feb. 25 on its home field. After falling behind 10-0 in the first half, UTD held off UT San Antonio in the second half to come away with a 15-10 victory and earn the school’s first championship.

UTD will head north to play against Wayne State (Neb.) on April 14 for a shot at the Pacific West Regional Championship and one of four spots in the national championship tournament in Colorado.

Just one year ago, UTD rugby didn’t have a home field, and the school didn’t own a set of goal posts. In fact, the team didn’t have a roster large enough to field a team.

“Half the time we were on the recreational baseball fields,” Nathan Sohadaseni, the team’s captain, said.

The rugby club’s quest to compile a side large enough to compete against other schools began in fall 2010 when it consisted of only six or seven players, not enough to make up half of one team. Sohadaseni inherited the club’s presidency the next spring, and set out to recruit as many players as he could, regardless of whether they had ever played the game before. He targeted former football players, but welcomed anyone interested in learning.

“It was difficult,” he said. “Sure we’d recruit people, but they’d come out and see there are only six or seven people and then maybe they wouldn’t come back the next time.”

He kept recruiting through the summer, and as many as 45 players showed up to the first official practice of the school year this past fall, which was surely enough to field a team. In order to join the Texas Rugby Union, or TRU, and compete against other schools, the team needed a coach.

Fortunately, former player and coach Tony Wagner was the TRU collegiate director at the time and planned to retire at year’s end. He’d previously coached at SMU, itself a member of the TRU, for nine years before taking the job as director, and left his post as director to join Sohadaseni and vice president Dominic Prestia at UTD.

Wagner taught the players every aspect of the game, including how to pass, run and tackle. With such an inexperienced roster, he had to take it slow.

“The cool thing is no one on the team, including the coach, is ever going to be mad at you for being new,” Sohadaseni said. “You don’t know what you’re doing? It’s okay. You’re going to learn.”

It also just so happened that Sul Ross State, also a member of the TRU, couldn’t fill its roster. So UTD filled the spot, but no one on the team knew whether the roster made up mostly of players with no previous experience would be able to keep up with opposing teams.

“I told (the TRU), ‘we don’t know how competitive we’ll be. We might not even win a game, but we’d love to do it,’” Sohadaseni said.

After a few preseason matches and two tournaments, Sohadaseni was still unsure just how successful the team could be.

“In some of them, we even got stomped. Scores were like 64-5,” he said.

The silver lining was that UTD was playing against schools such as Rice, with much larger, more established programs. Among the losses was a 34-10 defeat at the hands of SMU, Wagner’s former team.

But suddenly, UTD found its rhythm. It took third place in a tournament in San Antonio, and beat Lamar, 34-10, in the team’s first official league game.

“That was a huge moment,” Sohadaseni said. “After that, everyone just kept working hard and we just kept winning.”

UTD scored 51 against Tyler Junior College and 54 against Midwestern State. The club then exacted revenge against SMU in blowout fashion, 74-0, to complete an undefeated regular season and earn the right to host the TRU Championship.

After a 44-5 trouncing of Lamar, UTD played UT San Antonio in the championship match. UTSA jumped out to a quick lead, but UTD scored to go up 15-10 in the second half. UTSA was knocking on the doorstep for the game’s final 10 minutes, though. After a penalty with two minutes left, Sohadaseni and the other defenders watched UTD’s forwards try to win a scrum down to regain possession of the ball and end the game.

“We knew we had to stop them,” he said. “Everyone was exhausted, and everyone had been running 100 percent the entire game. Everyone knew the importance of this game.”

Sohadaseni stood back and could only hope the players he helped train would win possession of the ball, and they did just that. UTSA was called for a penalty after what seemed like an eternity, and UTD kicked the ball out of bounds as time expired. The game was over.

“It was insanity,” Sohadaseni said of the emotion after the final whistle blew. “It was a culmination of everything. It was crazy.”

The club earned the right to play in Neb., and will face Wayne State, one of the top-ranked teams in the country and also undefeated, on April 14. UTD was scheduled to play Rice on March 10 to stay fresh, but the match was cancelled due to weather. The only other chance for a warm-up is on March 24 against Baylor. Sohadaseni said the match would be useful to keep the players sharp and focused.

More important is the camaraderie the team has built. Concentration won’t be an issue.

“Everyone’s friends. We always hang out all the time,” Sohadaseni said. “So whenever anyone starts getting nervous, you just put things in perspective. We’ll be okay.”

At this point, it’s difficult to doubt the team. Sometimes in sports, passion and heart are worth more than experience and funding. This might be one of those cases.

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