Team Spotlight: The Florida Atlantic Surprise
Team Spotlight: The Florida Atlantic Surprise
Florida Atlantis finished the 2018-19 Florida DIAA season with a 4-6 record.
This year, before the college rugby season was halted, FAU was at 6-0.
The turnaround was startling. Consider that three of FAU’s 2018-19 wins were forfeit wins, so they were really 1-6 on the field. Losses included two defeats at the hands of Central Florida (20-7 and 43-25) and losses to Florida, Florida International, Florida State, and South Florida.
This year, FAU already has beaten Central Florida, Florida, and FIU (plus North Florida and FGCU).
No More Clubby
What caused the turnaround? It wasn’t increased numbers, in fact the FAU team is smaller than it was two years ago. It wasn’t a drastic change in tactics.
The change was about culture, and skills.
It started when prop Luis Sousa, who was coached by Steve Mattingly in high school, asked Mattingly to come coach at FAU. Sousa knew the team could be better, but Mattingly inherited an FAU team used to losing by large margins.
“Last year it was a big challenge to take a team that was more of a social team and change the whole program into more of a serious, competitive program,” explained Mattingly.
He even changed the name, nixing FAU Rugby Club in favor of FAU Rugby Team.
“The word ‘team’ showed that we’re serious,” said Mattingly.
He encountered resistance. Players who didn’t think they needed to come to practice rebelled. Alumni said his expanded practice schedule wouldn’t work.
But Mattingly stuck with it, and entered this past fall with a plan to train Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, with a film session on Wednesdays and a walk-through on Fridays.
Players left, but the players who joined did so because this is what they wanted.
“I made a vow,” said Mattingly. “I promised them we’d win a conference championship. I got laughed at.”
In the end, what was a squad of 35 players dropped to 18, but those 18 were athletic, and dedicated, and they responded to the new regime.
Mattingly asked Atlantis coach Greg Schor Haskin to come in to work on the 7s team and work with the backs. He brought in Chris Vassel, who coaches at Boca Raton and the Florida Jaguares, to work with the forwards and on defense.
What Schor Haskin saw was a team that was raw, but wanted to work.
“Steve said ‘I’ve got these incredible athletes,’ and he was right,” said Schor Haskin. “They were athletic, but they struggled to catch and pass a rugby ball. I went into it thinking I’d go down once a week, but they wanted to learn and worked so hard, they were thriving on learning, that I ended up going out three times a week.”
The players learned quickly and started to link passes together and in their first 7s tournament made the final. The next tournament, they won.
“They are really good kids,” said Schor Haskin. “Steve has the discipline with them and they are organized, and they got a taste of it and started to build from there. I think a lot of the improvement just comes from them.”
They developed a nice rivalry with South Florida (also undefeated in Florida DIAA action), losing on the final play of the game in the first 7s final, and then beating USF in the following final despite being down to six players.
Mattingly knows USF Head Coach Austin Dacanay well, as both played hooker in club rugby in Florida. That has only fueled a rivalry between two teams on the rise.
“They had the #1 offense this year, but I believe our defense can shut down any team,” said Mattingly. “They were in our sights. We’ve been working hard, and working hard on our fitness. We played the whole season with 18 players, but I will take 18 solid, dedicated players over a larger group of guys who already think they’re superstars.”
Results Speak For Themselves
That work ethic resulted in a 6-0 record in Florida DIAA, and they’ve added some sponsors—the Artful Dodger restaurant in Boca Raton and the Zappitell Law Firm. Leading the way on the field is a group of forwards that works hard for each other and doesn’t back down. In the backs they have some special talents.
Newcomer and inside center Shemar Smith exploded for six tries—the only game he didn’t score in was against Florida, when FAU won 66-7.
Flyhalf Spencer Gray has been clutch with his goalkicking, including his late conversion and then penalty goal to ensure FAU’s 27-24 defeat of FIU on February 21.
Fullback Henok Germain may well be the fastest rugby player in the state.
“It’s all about chemistry,” said Mattingly. “Greg and Chris did a lot for us, and we’ve built respect within the program. I’m really excited about next year.”
A drive to a conference title was cut short, but with players responding to a more serious approach, FAU looks to have some staying power.