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Rice Announces Comeback with Win Over SHSU

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Rice Announces Comeback with Win Over SHSU

Rice and SHSU packs prepare to engage. photo Valentina Vazquez.

This past week’s 29-26 victory for Rice over Sam Houston State is a big statement for an Owls team that has been a bit in the rugby wilderness for a few years.

Rice has a very strong potential to be a heavy player in DIAA rugby, especially with the pool of high school talent from the region. But perhaps “DIAA” is the operative term here. As college rugby shifted to DIA and DIAA Rice was, like many Texas teams, kind of caught in limbo between the two.

As has happened with many colleges with low admission rates, they kind of bounced between divisions as the college game changed and the domestic talent pool looked at other options.

But smart, dedicated rugby people don’t disappear and eventually these kinds of teams come back. Sometimes it takes a few years; sometimes more than a few. For the Rice program, they began to recruit heavily during COVID shutdowns; they approached student-athletes who were forced to be idle during the worst of the pandemic and gave them a new option. The attraction of physical activity, being on a true team, and learning something new struck a chord. Meanwhile, the returning players wanted to make a change.

“I’d say the fuel for the fire this year was changing the narrative around Rice Rugby,” explained Head Coach Stewart Morris. “In recent years Rice has been looked at by other teams as undersized who aren’t physical and an opportunity for D1A sides to come down and beat up on for a friendly. The lads took that personally and are fighting to prove them wrong. They no longer want to be seen as that. It is true, we have been undersized in every match we have played so far, but I have seen our team physically dominate every squad in contact and in the breakdowns this year. Put simply, they were tired of being pushed around and are pushing back." 

The pushback was in full force over the weekend as they now sit atop the Lonestar Conference after beating SHSU.

The Owls struck first with a try 10 minutes in and after SHSU replied through their all-everything center Jaxson Stokely, Rice extended their lead to 12-5. That was the halftime score, and the game seemed in the balance. Rice tipped the scales in the first six minutes of the second half with a converted try and a penalty for a 22-5 lead. 

Sam Houston State responded brilliantly, sparked by a drop goal from flyhalf Devon Smith the Bearkats put in two tries and eight more points from Smith’s boot to take the lead 26-22.

With time winding down, SHSU was hoping to control possession and run out the clock, but center Mason Melendez stepped in to intercept a pass and race in for the game-winner.

It was a game, said SHSU Head Coach Ramon Serrano, that the Bearkats could potentially have closed out.

“We let one get away,” he growled.

Or Rice pulled one out. Win or lose, the Rice Owls made a bit of a statement.


A post shared by Rice Rugby (

Coached by a solid staff including former Baylor captain Stewart Morris, the Owls have turned a huge corner.

“I can’t take the credit on this season’s success,” said Morris in his typically humble manner. “The other coaches and I put it all on the lads’ shoulders. They have worked extremely hard for this. There are multiple players on the squad who have put their foot on the gas this year that I wish I could name them all. Our focus this year has been controlling the game. In the past we have been the team who has taken advantage of mistakes, score on big breaks, but have struggled with controlling the ball on offense and playing our structure. We want to be able to hold a ball for 30 phases and speed up and slow down whenever we need to. Those are the teams that dominate because they aren’t under stress and are confident in their structure and their teammates to do their jobs.”

The Owls have been able to do that, but Morris said there’s a need for more improvement. However, helping them along is their defense.

“The coaches and I are proud to say our tackling ability and our aggression on defense are what has helped us win these matches,” said Morris. “Defense has been a big focus for me with the guys. Without our solid defensive line, we would not have won them.”

Players Always Learning

Leading the are players such as No 8 Nate Lee. An experienced player who is hugely aggressive on defense and runs downhill.

“He puts his head down and is eager to do the forward dirty work,” said Morris. “If Nate wanted to play for a premier club side or play professionally, he could do it without question.”

Lock Eli Ginsburg spent some time playing in New Zealand and that elevated his rugby understanding. He is a leader of the forwards and the central man in their lineouts. He makes those hard meters and works enormously hard.

Also in the forwards, prop/lock Hubert King, like Lee took up rugby at Rice. He was a co-man-of-the-match against Sam Houston because he wins the physical battle, runs with power, and is a rock on defense. He has been playing for three years and “his rugby IQ and his vision of the game just skyrocketed,” said Morris. King had been playing lock but an injury in the front row forced him to move to tighthead prop, and the always smiling, always joking forward took on the new challenge and excelled.

In the backs, Melendez at center also learned to play at Rice and he brings a big pile of athleticism. He is quick and explosive and he loves to lead on defense ... elements all demonstrated in his scoring of the game-winner. Captain and scrumhalf Ethan Kao run this entire team.

“Ethan controls the game speed with an Iron fist and has great finesse,” said Morris. “He is the guy that picks the team up and makes sure the new guys on the squad are up to speed. He takes time out of training to work on micro skills with the younger guys such as passing and body positioning.”

New Coaches, New Attitude

So you see how it took some years to piece it together. Several players started their rugby at Rice and t took time for them to get to this point. But the coaching and organization is important, too. Morris isn’t the only one with a whistle at training. Chris Brown (HARC) and current Houston Sabercat Marno Redelinghuys have joined the staff and made big changes.

“We are extremely lucky to have them, and we would not have made it here without them. Both are great rugby players themselves and brought a wealth of knowledge and skill to training,” said Morris. It helps, added Morris, that the players are very coachable.

“They are here at Rice for academics and take the time to come out to training and work hard,” Morris said. “There is nothing more a coach or teammate can ask for. Someone wanting to improve and acting on it.”

And they embraced a new approach in making Rice better, but, added Morris, "we've got a long way to go though and need to keep working.”