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Program Spotlight: Family at Heart of Mankato Success

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Program Spotlight: Family at Heart of Mankato Success

Athleticism and team play see MSU Mankato to a Northern Lights Conference title. Photo Taylor Birchem.

In some ways this fall has been a season of turnarounds in Men’s D2 rugby, but few, if any, are more profound than what has happened in Mankato, Minn.

The MSU Mankato men’s team is Northern Lights champion and a real dark horse on the national stage, and all of that has come thanks to a remarkable shift in approach, culture, and pretty much everything else. Remarkable, for one thing, because this is a team that has embraced the rugby team ethos despite the fact that no one on the team ever played rugby before arriving on campus.

“When I started playing four years ago we were not anything special,” said club president Alex Wehrman. “We weren’t organized. We didn’t have any coaches. And while the social side of rugby is part of the game we were too social.”

When COVID shut down activities on campus, the leadership group of the team decided to push for a chance. No more partying the night before a game. Increase practices from (maybe) twice a week to three times a week without fail. Recruit hard, but recruit players they wanted on their team, who shared the same values.

“Even when we got back to campus and were able to train, and campus security was driving by to make sure we were training with masks on even when it was 90 degrees, we decided we would focus on what we can control,” said Wehrman. “We can control our attitude and our approach.”

In the fall of 2021 Mankato managed to play some games against South Dakota State, Minnesota-Duluth, and North Dakota State. The results weren’t exactly there, but the team began to come together.

“When we played 7s in the spring we got more out of it and we started to see that we had a lot of athletes on our team,” said Wehrman.

With Nick “Lucky” Mans and Dustin Evans coming in to coach, they started to look like a real program. The players, non of which had played any rugby in high school, saw the beauty of playing as a true team. 

“We’d recruit guys who had played football or whatever and they would come out and then come back to me and say ‘thank you for introducing me to this sport.’ Some of them had tears in their eyes,” said Wehrman. “We got a great group of guys, a bunch of guys with ‘a rugby problem’ and really most of what we did was set up a table in the dining center and talk about it. Guys who ask why they would want to play rugby and we’d say, you become part of a family.”

That, more than anything, has been what Mankato’s resurgence has been about—family. With Wehrman, a wing, Levi “Dewey” Johnson at scrumhalf, and No. 8 Max Shoger leading the way on the field and in the (metaphorical) clubhouse, Mankato burst out of the blocks this season, and on this past Saturday beat North Dakota State 21-14 to win the conference—something that was thought a pipe dream just a couple of years ago.

“What was great about that game was that no one stood out,” said Wehrman. “Everyone played as part of the team. Everyone was willing to play for each other. It’s why the guys are on this team. And as our coach says: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”