It took a while, but the UW club rugby team has finally earned some respect. It took second place in the Division II National Championships, but even though the Badgers didn’t capture the title, don’t think they aren’t thrilled about the upcoming years.
According to team captain Sean “Booch” Beuche, simply saying the rugby team came in second place at Nationals does not give justice to Wisconsin’s accomplishments. After sneaking into Nationals as the No. 16 seed, the Badgers were matched up with top seed Salisbury, a team that according to Beuche, aside from being ranked No. 1 in the tournament, proved intimidating to its opponents.
“They just looked like a bunch of steroid-using monsters out there,” Beuche said. “We just got through that, but we just kinda learned to ignore that. If you don’t play well together, you’re not going to win a game.”
The Badgers pulled together, and to everyone’s surprise, Wisconsin upset Salisbury 19-17 on a last second score. According to Beuche, aside from wanting to upset the tournament’s top seed, the team was focused on bringing attention to a deserving program.
“We knew we were going to be the lowest seed in the national tournament,” Beuche said. “We’re knowing that we’re the underdog, we’re the Cinderella, we had something to prove. That was a ton of fun to go out there and see the No. 1 seed.”
But the story doesn’t end there. After defeating Arizona State in the second round, Wisconsin was set to face Miami (Ohio), a team that beat the Badgers earlier in the season in the Regional Finals. Despite the fact they already beat two strong opponents earlier in the tournament, Badger senior Ryan Funderburk said the match against Miami brought out the most in a lot of the players on the squad.
“I know I felt like I had a chip on my shoulder after losing to them earlier in the season,” Funderburk said. “We weren’t going to let them beat us again. …The fact of the matter is that we played together — that’s why we won.”
In the national title game, the Badgers lost to Middlebury 27-11, but while the loss ended the season for Wisconsin, UW is confident it will be a strong competitor for years to come. Unlike two seasons ago, when the Badgers reached the Midwest Final Four with clutch play and some good luck, this season, according to Funderburk, Wisconsin seemed confident from the start.
“Two falls ago we went to the Midwest Final Four, but I feel like the general feeling was we kind of got lucky,” he said. “I think this year there was a different feeling. Going into the Midwest playoffs, we feel like we owned it and deserved it.”
Aside from their season accomplishments, both Beuche and Funderburk are excited for the future of Wisconsin rugby and rugby in the Midwest. This season, both UW-Milwaukee and Illinois were invited to join Division I. Beuche believes it is only a matter of time until Wisconsin joins the ranks of college rugby’s best teams.
“We expect that in two years we’ll move up to D-1,” he said. “We’ve come across many many D-1 teams over the past year. … We went to a Big Ten Tournament where we beat Minnesota and only barely lost to Notre Dame later in the season.”
“I can speak for everybody — everybody on the team would feel comfortable moving up to D-1,” Funderburk added. “After the way we played this year, I’m pretty sure we’re ready for it.”
Against Illinois and UWM, both of which moved up to Division I this season, the Badgers won 55-0 and 48-5 respectively. Although that might be a small example of how Wisconsin fared against D-1 opponents, it shows the Badgers can at least compete with better competition.
Furthermore, Beuche believes while neither Wisconsin nor Miami was able to take the National Title, the mere presence of both Midwest teams in the Final Four shows just how much Midwest rugby has grown, and how it deserves more attention.
“This year we showed that we could compete with better competition,” Beuche said. “Miami and Wisconsin making it to the Final Four will show that the Midwest is a stronger rugby union that previously thought. … Wisconsin has definitely grown by leaps and bounds as far as rugby is concerned.”
And by Wisconsin, Beuche doesn’t only mean the UW-Madison. All across Wisconsin, teams are beginning to be recognized nationally for their achievements. UW-Stout is currently in Division I, and UW-Whitewater has also proved to be a formidable opponent. Even in high schools, rugby clubs are being formed, and both Beuche and Funderburk are excited about what’s next to come for Wisconsin rugby.
Until the Badgers move up to Division I though, they will continue to compete and will ultimately fight for a National Championship. That feat, Funderburk says, is something everyone on the team knows is no longer a product of luck, but an outcome of hard work and achievement.
“I know it’s painful to see some of the guys leave the team,” Funderburk said. “As Booch said, there’s so much fresh talent moving up. … There’s no one on the team who doesn’t expect to be in Nationals again next year.”