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The popularity of rugby and the quality of play has grown exponentially over the last decade in the United States. The number of players participating in the college ranks and funneling to the national team programs has been growing. Now in its eighth installment, the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) has provided a high profile platform for college athletes to display their talents in front of evaluators. As a result, the tournament has seen a multitude of players move on to the national spotlight.
Both the men’s and women’s national teams have benefitted from the increased exposure of the Collegiate Rugby Championship. Over several dozen male players have attended a high performance camp, been a part of the national player pool, or suited up for the men’s 7s or 15s national teams. On the women’s side, roughly a dozen players have been included in the national team player pool.
“I think if you look back at the number of USA players who played in the CRC, it’s quite an illustrious list. It has been a program that produces people who can go on and play for the national team,” said former Dartmouth standout and current USA 7s captain Madison Hughes.
The first wave of CRC stars vaulted onto the national stage after playing in the tournament. Bowling Green’s Rocco Mauer, the University of California’s Blaine Scully and Colin Hawley, and Army’s Will Holder all excelled at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship and made contributions to the men’s Eagles 7s team.
A number of early CRC participants made their way on to the Rio Olympics squad. Thretton Palamo dominated the field in helping Utah win the inaugural CRC while Nate Ebner wowed at the competition and made his way onto the Ohio State football team and into the NFL. While playing for the New England Patriots, he made the 2016 Olympic rugby squad.
Over the years, several other Olympians have found stardom at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship. Madison Hughes made waves as a freshman, winning tournament MVP for an undersized Dartmouth squad. Danny Barrett led Cal to the first of its four consecutive CRC Titles. Both have spent significant time with the USA 7s Eagles over the last several years and realized their dreams by playing in the Rio Olympics.
“I see the CRC as a place where players such as Madison Hughes, Danny Barrett, Brett Thompson, Nate Ebner and Thretton Palamo cut their teeth,” said USA 7s coach Mike Friday. “It is very much a part of the talent ID pathway.”
The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship has grown over the years, expanding from a field of 16 men’s teams to include 24 men’s teams, a women’s division, the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) national championship and boys and girls high school competitions. The pathway to the national team is getting easier and with increased coverage by NBC Sports, exposure for future athletes is only continuing to grow.
Since the addition of the women’s division at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship, numerous female players have emerged as possible future Olympians. Nicole Strasko led Life University to its first CRC championship in 2016 and made her debut on the HSBC World Series circuit this season.
“The CRC was a great tournament in order to test individual and team goals both physically and mentally. The great crowd and environment gave us a good energy to work with, but also gave us the opportunity to play under pressure in a stadium. I think being able to funnel nervous energy into a positive game ready mentality is vital in post college rugby. I am very thankful for my CRC experience in that aspect,” Strasko said of playing in the CRC.
The NSCRO National Championship at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship also provides a pathway for talented athletes from smaller schools. Playing for New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU), a school with under 1000 students, Kevon Williams was recognized by the national team coaching staff for his outstanding performance. Williams led NMHU to two consecutive NSCRO CRC titles and in the process made a name for himself. The speedster was invited to a high performance tracking camp and made his international debut on the men’s national team in the 2016-2017 HSBC World Series.
“The CRC was great for us. Even though we were not playing in the main tournament against big name schools, we were still playing in the same stadium, being able to showcase our talent,” Williams told Penn Mutual. “Somebody could be going out there to look for somebody playing at California or any other big school and they find one us from a small school.”
Coach Friday added, “This is the first place I saw Kevon play. On day one of the tournament, we picked him out a possible player that should go to the Collegiate All Americans. We tracked him from there through to playing for Denver in the Serevi 7’s last summer. There were certain aspects of his play we liked and other parts we felt he needed to work on. He has listened and worked hard and earned his way onto the national squad. Certainly, playing in the NSCRO division at the CRC helped his cause in us coming across him.”
The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship is a breeding ground for national team players and future Olympians.