The ball sailed off target from the goalposts, the whistle blew as the referee signaled the end of the match, and the Cougar Rugby team broke into a frenzy. They became winners again, and there was a sense that they would never look back.
Leading up to their February match against the University of South Carolina, Cougar Rugby was growing tired of celebrating moral victories. They had not won a fifteens match since fall 2015 against UNC-Wilmington, who sent their B-side in lieu of an A team who had earned a conference playoff birth. During this period, the players worked through a series of challenges that nearly forced them to permanently step down a level of competition. That’s when player participation fell, as well. “It’s hard to stay fully committed to something like that,” recalled rising senior Jared Ball, winger from Florence, SC. “So that’s when the excuses began to roll in. After a close defeat we would hear ‘but you’re getting better’ or ‘that team was much bigger.’ After a while you get a little tired of hearing those excuses and you want to do something about it instead.”
Beating USC, who is consistently ranked in the Division I polls, marked a new era for the C of C players.
“It was euphoric,” said front row specialist Ryan Morris, a rising junior from Bluffton, SC. “For guys like me and Jared, who are in the middle of our careers, it felt like a turning point towards much better play.”
The momentous sway would lead to a 2-2 finish at the first Southern Rugby Conference Sevens tournament, where the Cougars took down Elon and UNCW, and narrowly lost to The Citadel, the previous year’s conference champions in Sevens. They went on to break even in every Sevens tournament for the rest of spring and finished off with a massive 82-10 win against the Blockade in the final fifteens match of the year, and it was their tenth win for the semester. To the players, better organization and strengthened trust were the catalysts for success.
“Things really fell into place when the structure of the team became reinforced,” said Jared Ball, “and we began to receive faithful coaching. Those things go a long way.”
Ryan Morris emphasized the strength of the team’s diverse skillsets and interests.
“This is a special group,” he said. “Most of us did not play rugby prior to attending C of C, and we’re like this rag tag group of guys who are trying to get things done. We have some of the best former high school wrestlers in SC, guys who were offered football scholarships, a swimmer, a former Marine, the front man of a rock band, a trumpet player, and we’re all a little bit insane. But I think that’s what makes us great.”
Now, midway through the offseason, the team is taking steps to build on their success from the spring. The newly elected officer group has committed their time to weekly recruiting at summer orientation and staying in touch with every returner on the team. For the guys who are still in town, pop-up skill sessions with Coach Conners have become the norm. And according to Ball, the team has not lost that chip on their shoulder.
“I don’t feel like we are a winning team yet,” said Ball. “But now that we are winning, we will have to keep it up for a long time in order to get to that point. We need to stay open to learning in order to grow.”