ACU Rugby completed its season with an 8-8 record, doubling the number of games and players since its inception three years ago.
Aaron Pokluda, senior multimedia major from El Paso and Juan Escobedo, a senior nutrition and exercise science major from Round Rock, started the rugby team in 2015 with only seven players, all without experience.
Since then, the team has grown to a consistent 20-man roster, most of whom have played for three years.
“We’ve had a significant increase in regards to player skill level,” Pokluda said. “Those who started when the team did had no experience but have stepped up to be leaders, showing the new freshmen how to play effectively.”
Prior to this year, the team played three games in 2016 and eight games in 2017. Since September, the men’s team has played 16 games.
The team traveled to El Paso to play in the Inaugural Rampage Cup at University of Texas at El Paso against the Chihuahuan team and won.
“It was basically like we were a D1 program for the day,” Pokluda said. “We had doctors lined up, chiropractors that fixed everyone before the game, restaurants that were catering to our wins, proper lodging and the actual sports equipment and travel necessities to get the job done.”
Pokluda said the team has also grown in fellowship outside of games and practices through pre-rugby tournament watch parties, where they gather together to celebrate fellowship and have late-night sleepovers.
“It’s really exciting when you’re off the field, walking to a class, and one of your players says your name and throws a ball at you,” Pokluda said.
Last year, a women’s team spawned from the men’s, participating in matches against other female-only teams.
Despite the split, the teams still practice together and build each other up through co-ed games.
“They’re showing girls it’s not only a guy’s sport,” Pokluda said. “If a girl can take down a guy in practice or can compete against a guy, it’s going to make it that much easier to take on another woman later on. The women’s team has grown in a very exciting way.”
Throughout the past year, the women’s team competed in two different seasons, one in 10s and one in 7s. During the fall semester, there was a tryout series for a Texas all-star team that went on to compete in a nationwide tournament. ACU placed four women on that team, an entire roster of 12.
Camilla Klar, graduating senior global studies major from Juda, Wisconsin, was president of the women’s club this year and said one of the most important aspects of the success of starting and maintaining a women’s team is self and team-confidence.
“We’ve seen a lot of individual development, and also the fact that we’re extremely diverse in our athletic abilities,” Klar said. “One of the girls was a dancer when she came, and that’s all she knew.”
With dwindling numbers, Klar said the women’s team plans to take a step back and work on recruiting as a new club. Within the next year, the team’s goal is to be completely independent from the men’s.
“A lot of people are scared to come and play,” Klar said. “Instead we can talk about it more if we’re not just dedicated to going to games and stressing about numbers.”
Going forward, Pokluda said the top priority is to be established as a collegiate team and increase their presence within the Lone Star Conference.
“After we’ve taken care of everyone who wants to step up and face us locally, we will go ahead and turn our attention to those international exhibition games,” Pokluda said. “We’ll keep winning, we’ll keep working, we’ll keep putting our brand out there until people take notice and decide to join us.”
To be an official member of the Lone Star Conference, teams must have at least 20 people on the roster, a certified coach and recognition from the university or another host entity. Currently, the rugby team has recognition from ACU as a club sport and has had up to 30 people on the roster. Nikki Jansen, the new head coach, took over last semester for Keith Goddard, who had to step down due to personal issues.
Jansen has rugby experience through the Air Force representative rugby team and, despite deployment, is coaching the team from afar. The new forwards coach, Jonathan Howell, played rugby at the University of North Texas and Angelo State University.
“Coach Nikki brought a very tactical edge to the team,” Pokluda said. “They both bring a very potent combination to the table, and they teach players all sorts of new skills that we had never seen before and got to put to use on the field.”
Pokluda said having student involvement has been a night and day difference. In 2015, only five ACU supporters were in the stands. Now, Pokluda said an average of 20-30 fans attend each game.
“It’s been exciting to see how we’re building a fan base, and even an electronic fan base that follows us through Facebook and live streams,” Pokluda said. “Our players like to perform under pressure; that’s one of the reasons we play this game. Having more support there is certainly welcome, because it shows the boys that they’re not only playing for each other, they’re playing for the shield that sits over their heart on their jersey.”
Although the teams are growing, Pokluda said he hopes for more students to participate in building a fan base in the coming years.
“Though it’s not as much recognition as we would like, we do have more people asking how rugby is doing, acknowledging our work on and off the field, and it’s only going to get bigger,” Pokluda said. “This team is something that I hope lasts a long time, and I hope these players and these students understand what it means, and that they continue to build community and fellowship.”