Navigating College Rugby: Cal Maritime Way

The California Maritime Academy (CMA) is a rugby power in the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO). The Keelhaulers are one of the NSCRO  schools that compete annually for that organization’s title. However, we can’t tell you the story of CMA Rugby without telling you about CMA and how the entire set up of the college fuels the success of this small public school. CMA is currently ranked 9th in the NSCRO top 40 and is one of only two California schools in the ranking! The other are the defending national champions, Claremont Colleges.  In recent years CMA has two Final Fours to its name (2012 and 2015).  The Keelhaulers have finished in the top five rankings four of the past six seasons (remember that is out of 240 plus  NSCRO schools).

CMA is not a new school; it was established in the 1920 and is part of the California State University system. It is one of handful of maritime academies in the United States (US Naval Academy and Coast Guard Academy are some of the others).  CMA is the only one on the west coast. Located in the San Francisco bay area (Vallejo, CA), this school has approximately 1,100 students. 700 of those are men who can be eligible for the program's pool of players.

The rugby program was established in 1998 as a club program. In 2001 the school’s then president (William Eisenhardt) opted to make the program a varsity program, but there were conditions. The president had the unfortunate task of killing rugby programs at his previous two schools, and said for the CMA program to become a varsity program the boys would have to focus on academics, and a code of conduct. With those terms half the club quit, but enough stayed and struggled for the first few years of the varsity program while moving it forward. 17 years later CMA is a full varsity program with the support of the school, a culture of winning, two national runners up to its name.

Keelhaulers on the attack vs Santa Rosa JC in a conference match March, 2017. 

Keelhaulers on the attack vs Santa Rosa JC in a conference match March, 2017. 

Each year the Keelhaulers get about 50-60 guys at the first training session to either play, or give rugby a shot. Of those about 45 stick it out and become a part of a great team. “Our goal each year to have at least 40 guys, which will allow us to have two full side. Two full sides allow us to deal with attrition of a season, but to have really quality training sessions” says Head Coach Steve Hiatt.

The difference between this program and other varsity programs is that this is an Academy. The students/players are cadets! They carry 20-22 units each semester and have to gather three mornings a week at 7am on the quad in full uniform.  Many of the players have academic responsibilities and duties that sometimes take them away from training and games.  “We are really a blue collar school and side” says Coach Hiatt.  That is one of the keys to their success according to Coach Hiatt. 

CMA, while a varsity program does not provide “full-ride” scholarships for rugby, and the school’s academic and academy rigor means the guys who opt to add rugby their already full daily schedule do so because they want to be there and play.  The school offers only six majors; Business Administration/International Business Logistics,  Facilities Engineering Technology, Global Studies and Maritime Affairs, Marine Engineering Technology, Marine Transportation and Mechanical Engineering“Our boys don’t come to CMA to find themselves. We have only a handful of majors and an academy set up. Our guys are here with a purpose.  They want to become ship captains, to go to be officers in the Navy or Coast Guard, or to become engineers. So based on that we use rugby as an outlet or release for them, as well as an opportunity to become leaders and build teams” shared Coach Hiatt.

We don't do the traditional recruiting for rugby as they need to be at CMA for more than just rugby. We can't just say that guy is a great rugby player let us get him in. We do try and get guys to come but we have a different approach. We have really tired to work with Norther California Rugby Football Union (NorCal) and Rugby NorCal (High School and Youth) to share our field and pitch with clubs and youth as a way to have the program be seen” said Coach Hiatt.

Bodnar Field at CMA is a great pitch with a new all weather field. Coach Hiatt noted that this all weather turf has the longer blades of grass making it more conducive to rugby (and way less burns), rugby goal posts occupy the field (not soccer goal posts)  and the pitch’s white lines are rugby lines (not soccer or lacrosse).  So for all intents it’s a rugby pitch first and foremost. The sharing of this great resource in the Bay Area and NorCal are part of the recruiting for CMA since they don’t do traditional recruiting for rugby. Playing host to rugby games at different levels but especially for youth allows people to learn about CMA, where it is, what it is about and possibly have some ruggers who are looking for either careers in the services, engineering or maritime to now consider CMA.  Hiatt reported “We’ve had two-three rugby guys come to CMA and play here because they’d learned about us when they played at Bodnar field in high school. So its starting to have an impact".

CMA  is able to offer a successful high level rugby experience to students and being a varsity program means its get the full support from the school, which also enhances the experience. Here cadets can focus on school, rugby and prepare for their careers, and not deal with fundraising, finding a venue, recruiting players, etc.  A bonus that Coach Hiatt shared is that approximately 95% of the CMA graduates work in their field of study within six months. These aren’t just any careers, these are leadership and engineering based careers which can be lucrative.

Its great to get the support of the school for any program, but CMA also gets support from alumni. Hiatt noted that many of the rugby alumni are still young and so the big philanthropy dollars aren’t rolling in just yet, but CMA has established an endowment program.  The endowment program called RISE was started this year by the alumni. It runs with the hope to teach the players and then alumni to give back and to continue to build the program. The endowment called Rugby Inspired Scholarship Endowment (RISE) will continue to support the program with travel, fees, training, and the John Machado Scholarship.

Lineout during the recent Army at CMA game. March 13, 2018. Photo CMA

Lineout during the recent Army at CMA game. March 13, 2018. Photo CMA

The reason you should care about CMS is that regardless of size it is a high level rugby program. CMA is still a top ten program in NSCRO and their schedule this year has included UC Davis (last year’s DI-AA National Champs), UCSC (D1-AA), national powers CAL and Saint Mary’s College developmental sides, and this past week ARMY (West Point) who is in the D1A top 10!  Additional factors that sets CMA apart from some other programs is while CMA is a varsity program they do not provide full ride scholarships for rugby and so they are not recruiting the top level high school players in the USA, but as Coach Hiatt, says “we get the right people who can multitask, you have a focus and you are committed”.  It is important that you note that NSCRO considers a “small school” one with 4,500 students or less. CMA is at 1,100 so even by small school standards they are small! Yet they step up in competition when they can and play at the top of their own competition.

CMA has chosen to test themselves against bigger schools with more talent and use those opportunities to teach, but it also provides for good experiences for players. Coach Hiatt shared of a former player of his that recently recalled when they'd played against Cal and Danny Barrett and just having that experience of playing against some of the top players in the world as worthwhile.  In another example of testing themselves Hiatt said “We had a battle a few years ago with Davis where we held our own. Then we played them earlier this year and they really put it to us.  It was a learning experience for us to see how quickly they’d grown and improved as side, but we also saw what we have to focus on what we need to do to try and keep up with those program”.

CMA opts to play some of those big programs because those programs "do it right" according to Coach Hiatt. When they schedule CMA they treat it like a regular game, they give CMA the respect it has earned and play their game. That makes it a quality experience and an opportunity to learn. Sides that play CMA  know they are playing a program that will  also "do it right". CMA will have prepared to play them, give them good competition, play the game with integrity,do the post game right and really provide a good rugby experience. “That is why we get to play some of the teams we do” says Coach Hiatt about doing things right.  Hiatt’s Cal alum status and connections also result in opportunities for this program. When colleges plan a tour of the west coast it is the sides like Cal and Saint Mary’s College that suggest the touring sides also get a game in with CMA.  Again, this take us back to the relationships and networking that can be done through rugby.

CMA is known historically for having great set piece play and often controlling that facet of the game. Coach Hiatt admitted that they’ve graduated a number of great and experienced players and they haven’t been as strong in those areas, but they continue to work on developing that aspect of this team.   Coach HIatt said “We don’t have props that are six feet tall and run 4.4 forty times, but we have always had guys who work together and that is a huge part of rugby and how we’ve been successful”.

We asked Coach Hiatt if Claremont Colleges has become a “rival” for the program. Coach responded by saying that while he wouldn’t use the word “rival”, that the road the to final four will go through Claremont for him and most schools. “They (Claremont) are the defending champs, they have an excellent program, great coaches, and they play well together.  They are another California school with great success. We have nothing but respect for them as a side and a program. We don’t want to focus that far down the line as it will be tough enough to get to that point. We need to look at our next game,  but for sure to get to the final four team will have to go through them”.

The factors that contribute to their success have been covered for the most part, but you have to understand how much culture plays a role. It is great to be a varsity program, but who you play for happens  without school funding. You play to win, you play for the love of the game and most ruggers will tell you they play for the guy next to them.  “We want our players to know the guys beside them, not just in school and on the pitch but later in life. We are having this conversation because of our rugby ties, there is great networking with rugby, beyond just being a CMA alumni” said Hiatt. Coach Hiatt shared a story to that aspect.  “Our players use to recite the Shakespeare-Band of Brothers speech before the game. It was a way for them to remind themselves about brotherhood. And we then noted to them that the speech says ‘he who sheds his blood with me today shall be my brother’. It doesn’t say he on my team, it says he who sheds his blood with you. The other team will also shed their blood in battle with you.  So your opponent too shall be your brother after this game”.  That was a teaching moment where the coaches really used rugby to teach them about brotherhood and building bonds outside of just their team. 

“We really try and teach our guys to interact and get to know the guys they played against in the post game gathering. You don’t have to drink, but interact, talk etc. It does frustrate me with other teams just provide us with the meal and take off. Thanks for the meal, but you missed the big point. So much of the learning and networking and growing as a person comes from meeting and talking to other people” says Hiatt.



CMA is headed into the playoffs as their conference champions. They know that the road to the final four will not be easy but they also know they’ve tested themselves this year, and if they continue to focus, work hard and learn from the season they will be in a good position to make a run for a NSCRO title. Coach Hiatt noted “the thing to remember when we make the top 10, and have tested yourself the other sides in the playoffs will not be looking past you and will come prepared”.

A final note, NSCRO will be putting together an All-Star Champions tournament this year after school is out and Coach Hiatt will be involved with assembling a Pacific Coast Grizzlies side to play in June. This will be the first year back of the California/West Coast all starts for NSCRO which will be another plus for the players and the program.

We would like to thank Coach Steve Hiatt for his time and taking us inside the CMA program.  We would like to thank former CMA strength and conditioning coach and OMBAC/PRP prop Jake Nelson for his help in getting the story.  The Keelhaulers completed their regular season this past week (having fallen to Army 27-13, and then winning via forfeit by USF this weened). We wish the Keelhaulers the best of luck as they make a run for the NSCRO Final Four.