How SUNY New Paltz Rugby Rescued Itself
How SUNY New Paltz Rugby Rescued Itself
Sometimes college rugby teams run into trouble—school issues, outside issues, whatever the issues, some find themselves low on players, without a coach, and in danger of folding; here is the story of a team that turned the tide.
At SUNY New Paltz COVID hit just as much of the team was entering its senior year. A relatively small team at the best of times, New Paltz Rugby entered the fall of 2021 severely down in numbers.
“That was my first year with the team and that group, and we had about 6 players left,” said Caleb Persanis, who played his high school rugby at Pelham HS and started his freshman year in the fall of 2021. “But somehow we were able to field a 15, and only 15, by the end of September.”
It was enough to take the field.
“We played a full season of 15s in the fall and a full season of 7s in the spring we were terrible,” said Persanis, laughing. “We lost almost every game, but it was also a ton of fun, one of the most fun times I’ve had playing rugby.”
The Second Blow
Making it fun again and working hard to recruit they had rescued the program. Then, disaster struck. The team was accused of hazing. Despite the fact that the alleged victim of this hazing testified to the University administration that there was no hazing—we won’t go into the weeds on this but basically this was a very G-rated team activity that was misinterpreted by a third party—the rugby team took the blame for something that hadn’t actually happened. The result? Suspension. No rugby from fall 2022 through spring 2023.
The team, and the New Paltz rugby alumni, campaigned for reinstatement. They lost their coach during this time, but didn’t back down, and eventually the University acknowledged there had been no wrongdoing, and the rugby team was back in business for this fall.
“Nobody gave up,” said Persanis. “Even through the suspension, losing our coach, losing some of our best players through graduation, we didn’t stop. It was a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls and working really hard.”
The Road Back
This would be enough to kill a program. COVID shutdowns have hurt plenty of teams, but to have the team come back only to get suspended for something they didn’t do certainly put New Paltz Rugby in jeopardy.
“This year we had nine players left,” said Persanis. “Going into the fall our priority was to find a coach. The school put rules on high-risk contact club sports, which makes sense, and one of those is we have to have a coach. But they also put a cap on how much we’re able to pay a coach—$1,000 per academic year. We had four applicants and all four stopped responding to emails once I informed them of the pay.”
Luckily, however, former New Paltz player and experienced coach Joel Venables was living and working locally, and was willing to take over the team.
The players were relieved, but they didn’t quite realize what emotional force of nature they had unleashed on themselves. Venables oozes enthusiasm.
“He hit us like a bombshell,” said Persanis. “He was huge for the team. He came in so positive and so gung-ho and so optimistic about where we’re going that we couldn’t help but believe him. He came in and told us we can go undefeated. We had started with nine guys and now we have registered 22 or 23 guys. He told us we’ve have 30 guys by the end of the year … and it’s happening.”
A team that had worked so hard to stay relevant as an organization had showed that they care; when Venables showed he cared, too, then there was no stopping them.
“It’s been great being back,” Venables told GRR. “Every time you can recruit another player to rugby you’re leading them on a different path. I met my wife at New Paltz Rugby. We’d played a game and we got back and a teammate said ‘you’re a flyhalf, she’s a flyhalf … you should meet.’ And that was it. So I was just really excited. These guys picked up the game so quick and we’re still learning. We do a lot of game-oriented coaching and the players coach themselves, as well. Everyone has a shot to play A-side; everyone expects to play A-side, and it’s exciting, really to have so few guys.”
Back On The Field
It was exactly the right emotional boost for the team, and they re-took the field.
On September 17 they took the field for their first intercollegiate game since spring of 2022. This ended up being a series of 7s games with Drew as both teams were building their numbers. SUNY New Paltz won 56-0, 31-10, and 31-7.
“It was amazing to win a game 56-0 against a team we were losing to by 50 two years ago,” said Persanis.
Josh Holland-Weiss scored four tries and Fred Asher scored three.
A week later they took on SUNY Oneonta, which also didn’t have the numbers for 15s. So the New Paltz players (now, obviously to all, never a group to accept setbacks) contacted Bard College and the teams played a day of 7s. New Paltz beat Bard 24-0 and 29-0, and they beat Oneonta 17-0 and tied them also 10-10.
“We learned we need to work on our scrums,” said Venables. “They came back on us to tie it and we learned from that.”
The leadership group has been huge for this team both off the field and on.
“With our nine players at the beginning of this fall, only two of us had played rugby before coming to New Paltz,” said Persanis, who is club president but on the field a smart, elusive player who keeps the team moving on the field.
Ryan Brown is the captain and instrumental in how the team works as a unit. Sean Ryan is also a captain; a powerful runner and imposing tackler. Mikey Vernola is new to the game but smashes people despite being one of the smaller players. Football convert Kyle Spratley has taken up the game quickly.
When players went down Vernola and Spratley stepped in and played superbly. There are more.
Venables takes coaching inspiration where he can get it. His two sons wrestled—both ranked in the state in high school—and Venables uses some of those wrestling basics in his training sessions.
“Wrestling helped me tackle when I played for Old Blue,” said Venables,
But that’s not the only thing. Venables has been at Eagle Impact Rugby Academy sessions and he is a big supporter of the idea of using games, and scoring, in rugby exercises.
It might just be playing touch with live rucks. It might be scoring execution of basic skills.
“We have used a lot of EIRA approaches and using games,” said Venables.
“Every training session we focus on the basics,” added Persanis. “You have to.”
New Paltz sees has Molloy on the schedule this weekend and then William Paterson, Seton Hall, and Vassar. They are looking to get back to 15s during the games this fall, and when they do, they might feel they are for sure back.
“We have our own field and our own fixed goalposts,” said Venables. “New Paltz is one of the least expensive schools in NY. Next year we will look for more players who have experience and we could move up the ladder really quickly. But you can see some of these guys are just going to be rugby addicts.”
Advice For The Troubled
GRR asked Persanis for advice for a college rugby team spiraling into oblivion, and he said that every approach, new and old, is important.
“Get out there,” he said. “Get your name everywhere you can get it. We put up posters—New Paltz Rugby!—on every board on campus. You put your name anywhere anyone might see it. It seems weird to walk up to someone and say ‘you should play rugby’ but it works. You might not get that person, but they’ll know someone. Ask 1,000 people and maybe only 30 say yes, but that’s 30 for your team.”
In addition, social media was important.
“Instagram was a huge tool for us,” said Persanis. “Use social media to follow every guy who goes to the school. The key thing is to keep posting. Post multiple times a week.”
It’s more than that. SUNY New Paltz Rugby’s Instagram Feed is a clinic in how to use Instagram. They don’t get caught up in too many fancy graphics but the New Paltz Instagram feed is visually pleasing. They have good action photos and video, but there is also information. Their pinned post tells people when practices are and has a map to their field—something so simple and obvious but something few teams do. They got a photographer to do nice photos of all the players. They post their results.
All of this has taken New Paltz Rugby from seriously worrying the team being able to play again to thriving and growing. There’s something to be said for not accepting your fate and just not giving up.