Back For More: Azusa Pacific University Rugby's Quest For Nationals

If you’d spoken to anyone in rugby circles about Azusa Pacific University (APU)’s rugby program a few years ago they’d either have no idea that APU had rugby, or if they did have knowledge of it they would not describe them as a contender on the small college rugby landscape.

APU has been in the playoff offs each of the past three years. This small school in Azusa located in southern California (near greater Los Angles) made a run three years ago in the Gold Coast Conference. Three years ago they reach the playoffs for the first time. Two years ago they placed third in the Gold Coast playoffs.  Last year APU exited the playoffs earlier than they had hoped but based on the merits of that successful season they finished ranked 22nd in the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) standings. Not bad considering the program wasn’t really a program just a few years back. Current Captain  Josh Olford said “before I got here I had heard that rugby was really a recreational thing some did on a Saturday vs how we’ve now created an actual program here at APU”.  Olford who is in his last season with APU said “I had heard of the ‘dorm storm’ that would occur on Saturday mornings, where players would run through he dorms looking for anyone who may have played high school football and drag them out to the pitch that morning to field a side”.  This season APU’s numbers have remained consistently between 30-35 players (which is huge for a small college program).

APU currently sits at 5-1, receiving their first loss two weeks ago vs Clermont McKenna College (the Gold Coast Conference  Champions with a 6-0 record).  Claremont McKenna College is really a powerhouse college program. In 2010 Claremont won the DII National Championship (before dropping down) and is lead by Scott Bracken and  Jeremy Ognall coaches who experience includes stints with the SoCal Collegiate Griffin’s program. Last year Claremont McKenna traveled to Philadelphia to play the CRC 7s (NSCRO Division).

However APU is no slouch and are working to compete at the next level. Prior to their conference loss to Claremont, APU’s only blemish was a 7-point loss to UCLA in the preseason. The same UCLA that plays in DIA Rugby and is making its presence know with the big boys. APU racked up 90 points on an opponent earlier this year and has defeated the team they’ll be facing in the first round of the playoffs on March 19 …Cal Lutheran.

Last weekend APU had one of its players; Api Foumai Jr. selected to play with the Southern California Rugby Football Union’s Under 23 Selects (Griffins) in the Las Vegas Invitational. 

We provide you with all this other information so you can understand that APU really has arrived as a program.  APU could possibly face off again in the 2nd round of the playoffs  against Claremont. Sounds like there a rivalry is brewing between these two programs.

So how did this program go from a recreational club on campus using dorm storms to get players out on game day to now having a solid 30 plus guys, players making select sides, competing and holding its own vs. established programs and vying for post season glory?

The APU Boys 

The APU Boys 

Team Captain Olford said what changed and it sounds cliché is the culture. I came to this team after playing for two years with Fresno when they were making their runs at nationals, so did come with some experience and shared that. But what really changed was reading the book Legacy (about the All Blacks) and we realized that we really needed to change how we did things. We moved from being something you did on a Saturday to really coming together like a family. We all made an effort to get to know each other, show up to social events, be a team”.

Olford highlights the bonds by sharing that “we’ve got a few guys who have been to all the training sessions, games and team functions, and their play time has been very limited, but they show up because they are part of this team. We are all bought in and every person on the team counts. People count not just the games!”

This year APU also obtained a new coach in P.J. Canterbury (who had previous stops as a player with Santa Monica RFC, University of Arizona, and Pasadena RFC).  According to the team’s Captain Olford “The impact of Canterbury has been having a coach who has been able to command respect of the club because of how he conducts himself and just his experience as a player”. Having consistent leadership will also be a key for the program.

Olford who has severed in various administrative capacities in the past as well said that the team has really tried to approach things differently. They’ve been fortunate to have been able to connect with Royal Rugby Boot Co to be a sponsor and RXV but the area that the club struggles with is the financial aspects. The program gets a reported $500 from the school as a club, so most of its funding thus far has come from the support sponsors and player dues.  APU’s rugby tradition is not a rich or established one such as those of say a Cal or Santa Clara University that really get a great deal of financial contribution from alumni. However Olford said that the recent grads and current players see the importance of having alumni support to keep the program going.  APUs success will hopefully fuel more engagement now and in the future with alumni. It is hard to give money to something that isn’t producing or just not successful, and having something viable now gives these boys something to pitch to alumni and sponsors.

APU has established a GoFundMe campaign to help support some of its travel costs for the playoffs.  So in addition to preparing for the opening round of the playoffs (which APU believes is vital as it also impacts seeding) they are working to ensure they can actually travel effectively  for playoffs.   Olford said that APU has not really travel outside southern California and so they’ve never really had a road trip. “It’s going to be a great experience to have to travel, eat, stay in a hotel, etc. as part of playoff rugby. I had that when I first started rugby and it will really be a great experience for this team”.

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APU has between 5-7 players, who are now facing the end of their careers at APU with every game in the post season, and APU has a number of players who will become seasoned by the post season which will help them in years to come, but for APU the end isn’t here yet.  The team is really focused on taking on Cal Lutheran in the first round of the playoffs and knows seeding will be important. 
Olford the said about the up coming game “We know they are a good team and we also feel we’ve gotten better. Cal Lu has some big bodies; they can hit hard and have some key players.  We know that. We have a plan and we believe we can exploit their weakness”.  APU said their approach for the game is simple; they just need to handle business. If they want to get the next round and want to have a shot at something bigger it has to get done at home with the opening playoff game.  Olford admitted “We are coming off a loss, so we want to bounce back, and without looking too far ahead to take another shot at a great team like Claremont”.

APU’s strength through Olford’s perspective is the experience of the players as they go into the playoffs, and that they also have the size and speed to play the style of rugby the desire.  The club is confident in what the coaches have devised for them and feel that they are prepared for the playoffs.

APU could likely face Claremont  at some point in the playoffs and/or seeding games, which have other implications.  Those who aren’t as successful and get a low seed could have to face off vs Cal Maritime (who was the 2012 National Champion runner up for NSCRO).  While all teams always boost confidence, we also know its better if you don’t take on certain opponents early on.  

Regardless of the opponent, APU has demonstrated that they will step up and take on anyone. The boys at APU do this as they believe its how they get better as players and its how they create a legacy for a program that they are building together.  Best of luck to all the teams in the playoffs, and we hope that APU and their future alumni continue the work to build up their program.