(Luis Carpio Photo Credit: RRaFFPhotography)
By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
As the sport of rugby prepares for its Olympic debut, St. Bonaventure is taking advantage of the game’s increased popularity.
The Bona rugby program is now recognized as a varsity sport in the club sports department. The men’s and women’s teams will wear the same Bonnies logo as the 16 NCAA Division I teams and have a section on GoBonnies.com. Clarence Picard and Andrew Tui Osborne have been named full-time coaches of the teams, with assistance from Dr. Giles Bootheway, who coached the women last season.
“This is tremendous for the program as well as for the university,” rising senior prop Luis Carpio said. “This is a very proud achievement for all of us, and the program wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for everyone before us, the consistent support from alumni and the hard work that the players and coaches put in everyday.”
The NCAA does not recognize men’s rugby and only governs 15 women’s teams, so the Bonnies compete in the USA Rugby system. The men are in Division 1A, the highest level in the country, while the women play in the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO).
The primary reason Bona gave for upgrading the program, which is aided by alumni donations, was increasing university enrollment. Last year, there were 20 rugby players in Bonaventure’s freshman class. Like the other 16 varsity teams, the athletes came from all over- Massachusetts, Nigeria and the United Kingdom, for example.
According to Carpio, a New York native who played for powerhouse Xavier High School, SBU’s location is an asset in recruiting rather than the detriment it is often viewed as in other sports.
“(Bonaventure’s) location is also huge because the northeast (region) contains some of the best talent and high school rugby programs in the country,” he said.
The men’s team’s talent level is evidenced by its sevens team’s 10th-place finish at the national championship this spring. Last fall’s season did not go as well, as the team finished 2-5 in 15-man competition in the tough Rugby East Conference that featured powers like Army, Penn St. and Wheeling Jesuit.
The University of Delaware was just added to the conference, further bolstering the level of competition. It won’t be easy for the 15s team to match its sevens squad’s success.
“Every week in the Rugby East Conference will be a dogfight,” Carpio said. “The boys have been working really hard this offseason with strength, conditioning and nutrition.
“We have a really diverse team this year with experience, talent and leadership ranging from freshman through seniors. Every week we will be the underdogs, and god-willing, Rugby East Conference Champs at the end of the season.”
Last summer, Carpio trained in South Africa. While he has his sights on playing pro rugby in the near future, a fractured ankle in the sevens national championship forced him to take a season off for the first time in six years. “I’ve just been taking it slow, slowly getting back into it… It’s all part of God’s plan,” he said.
While the team leader recuperates, he is eagerly anticipating the Olympics. “Rugby being added back into the Olympics is huge for the growth of the game in the USA and the rest of the world,” he said. He’s particularly excited to watch Ben Pinkleman, a former teammate from a USA U20 training camp who made the roster for Rio.
Over 120 million people watched New Zealand’s All Blacks win the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, so the game’s inclusion in the world’s most famous sporting event can only help increase its popularity.
Carpio’s pick for the gold? The Americans.
“New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa will come out strong as usual,” he acknowledged, “but the U.S. has a very diverse squad with a lot of versatility, and I believe that the USA will be able to take gold in Rio.”