The History of the Cal Poly Rugby team can be traced to one man: Pat McAweeney. While at high school and during his years in junior college, Pat played rugby for the Peninsula Ramblers. He then transferred to Cal Poly where he was a member of the football team. An injury cut short his football career, but he was still able to play rugby. During his recovery period, he worked to get his football teammates to help him start up a rugby team on campus. The difficulties that came from converting a gridiron group into ruggers resulted in an initial season devoted to scrimmages and position training under the guidance of, and then mentor Rod Sears.
Poly’s first game was played during the 1965-1966 season against the University of California at Santa Barbara. Subsequent to that time, Cal Poly competed in scrimmages with the Ramblers. Referees, who were hard to come by in those days, sometimes offered to help the ‘Mustangs’. One such referee, Al Junipera, of the Los Angeles Rugby Club, gladly assisted the “scruffy lot” during games he officiated. Cal Poly played ten-man up-and-under style (the Rambler way) which earned them the reputation for hard-hitting and swarming play. This remained the team’s trademark for many years.
Pat McAweeney played the stand-off position, which allowed him to guide the team from the backline. Former Ramblers (Lee Overbeck and Dave Paul) provided sturdy play as Cal Poly forwards.
Many of the rugby teams of the 1960s were the first for college campuses throughout California and were composed of football players and ruggers from Northern California. It was common to see a team’s nucleus formed by graduating football players. The 1960s seemed to be the “stone age” of rugby. In 1964, a rugby jersey was a prized possession, as teams usually sufficed with football jerseys or T-shirts. Rugby boots were not available in sporting goods stores. Players instead used Riddell football shoes with toe cleats.
The Cal Poly team blossomed into a club in 1966, with guidance supplied by Dave and Don Sturgess of Arroyo Grande. Dave took on the job of coach and helped solidify the Club for the next decade. He owned a local Irish pub and also “coached” the ruggers in proper rugby etiquette, songs, and beer drinking (behavior now frowned upon in American Rugby).
By 1967, Cal Poly had its first charted, non-funded rugby club on campus. During 1969-1970, many non-students joined the Club as well, because there was no other program in the area. The Club even had its own mascot, the “Grog” (from the comic strip, “B.C.”), “a little guy with long hair, flipping the bird to whoever was looking.” The Club was also mentioned in the school’s yearbook, El Rodeo; a first for rugby at Cal Poly.
The early 1970s saw a surge in popularity in the sport of Rugby with the Cal Poly-SLO side playing in a division that mixed club and university teams throughout California, and a season finale with entries in the Santa Barbara and Monterey Tournaments. (Cal Poly won the final Santa Barbara Tournament, held on Catalina Island in 1969, which was then moved to the UCSB campus) Standouts included Dave Ritchie (Grizzly 1971) Thom Dimmitt (Grizzly 1970) Vic Ecklund, Vic Rivera, Mark Sindel, Greg Peters, and Phil Northcraft.
After the 1975 season, the Club was split up with full-time students joining the Cal Poly Rugby Team, and their alumni forming the San Luis Obispo Rugby Club. The ‘Plowboys’ (a nickname formed as an intended insult by fellow competitors) developed an open style of play, due in part to their relatively smaller size versus Division I & II Clubs, and later in recognition of their superior speed and ability to move the ball. The Fall 1975 – Winter/Spring 1976 team was the first team of Cal Poly students only. That team came in 2nd place at the Santa Barbara tournament, and the next year, with ~4 changes in the lineup, easily won the Championship at Santa Barbara in 1977. The team gained additional experience in open field play during their 1977 ‘Barbarian’ tour to the Fiji Islands. The team’s focus and cohesive style paid off with a string of 22 consecutive victories, and the SCRFU DII Championship in 1978; and three successive trips to the final rounds of the Santa Barbara Tournament (DII 2nd 1976, 1st ’77 & DI 3rd ’78) Standouts include Wayne Stickles, Andy ‘La Boca’ Wilson, Doug ‘Bubba’ Smith, Billy Stevens (So Cal Griffin 78), Lin Price (So Cal Griffin 77, 78 & 79) and Matt ‘Wheels’ Fadden (MVP Santa Barbara 1977).
The 1980s and ’90s
The early 1980s brought new focus to college rugby with the birth of the Collegiate National Championships, and Cal Poly competed in the Southern California Rugby Union (SCRFU) Collegiate Division II (1979 to 1984). Charles Zanoli (CPRFC 1973-78) and Tom Bobrink (CPRFC 1973-74) became the first non-player coaches for the Cal Poly side in 1981. Always in the hunt, the ‘Mustangs’ were rewarded with the Santa Barbara DII Championship in 1981 and the SCRFU Collegiate DII Championships in 1982. Standouts included Rick Schorer, Joe Bush (MVP Santa Barbara 1981) Kerry Stevens, Phil Manukian, and Brian Serafino.
Due to their strong showing in DII Rugby, the SCRFU elevated the Mustangs to Collegiate Division I status in 1984, where they quickly learned to appreciate a new level of competition. Zanoli and Bobrink continued to refine Poly’s style of play, pushing the team past their traditional ‘club’ goals with demands for weight-room, conditioning, and playbook sessions outside their normal 3-day-a-week workouts. Their push was rewarded on the field with strong results in the ultra-competitive SoCal Division I, narrowly missing the team’s first invitation to the Pacific Coast Championships in both 1985 and ’86. Standouts included Mark Velci (Grizzly 1983) Paul and Jim McAndrews and Kevin Higgins. (Grizzlies, USA All-American (1984-86) USA Eagles 15’s (1985-91) * Captain USA Eagles 15’s (1989-1990) USA Eagles 7’s (1987-91)
The 1987 season looked to hold promise at the start, however, the pressure of preparing for Division I play had produced an undercurrent of descent amongst the lesser-focused club players, and Zanoli was asked to back off from the rigorous training sessions by the Club’s officers, in favor of a more happenstance approach to the game. Zanoli then instead went into a short-lived retirement, and the team fell into the doldrums for the next two seasons.
The 1989 season opened with a renewed spirit and strong leadership with club President John Vlahandreas seeking out first-class coaching opportunities overseas. Ian Mallard’s (Linwood RFC NZ, Mitsubishi RFC Japan & Crusaders RFC NZ) ‘drive & drill’ style soon had the Mustangs back to a cohesive 15-man game.
In fact, Mallard’s Teams, with Assistant Coaches Bobby Thrussell (UCLA RFC, Santa Monica RFC & Grizzlies 1970) Charles Zanoli and later Phil Northcraft (CPRFC 68-71), went on an unprecedented run of victories culminating in SCRFU DI Championships in 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1993, victories in the OMBAC Invitational Tournament in 1989 & ’90, and six consecutive trips to the Pacific Coast Championships (1989-1994) earning runner-up honors to Cal Berkeley in 1991 and 93. Standouts included Roark Schultz (Grizzlies 1989) Terry Hellinger (Grizzlies 1989) and Nick Massman (USA All-American 1990).
By 1996, the Southern California Rugby Union (SCRFU) had broken away from the Pacific Coast Territory, and the Cal Poly Rugby team had joined the ASI Recreation Sports/Collegiate Sports Clubs program. The team had fallen from prominence and Charles Zanoli was once again asked to come out of retirement and rebuild the team to past glories. The team began practice in January of 1996 with 22 players, an impossible schedule, with 1 home and 7 away games, and a negative balance in the bank. The ‘Mustangs’ survived that year and vowed revenge in the upcoming season.
The team doubled in player depth in the 1997-1999 seasons, however, campus building projects and the ‘El Nino’ floods played a major factor in their overall record. In fact, the 1997-1999 Mustangs never practiced on grass fields the entire season and played most of their home games in Bakersfield (2 hours away) with the cooperation of the Kern County RFC. As the Southern California Union was a relatively new Territory (1994-2000) the Collegiate DI teams were only afforded 1 seed in the USARFU National Tournament, and Cal Poly fell just short of this goal each of those years. Standouts included Captain Terry Quinn, Sean Ranney, Dennis Yee, Mark Bertolero, Brian Brakesman, Mike Buckley, Pat Beatty, Kevin Pekar, and Chuck Wilson.
The Modern Era
By 2000, Cal Poly’s rise in prominence as a university, combined with the completion of a dedicated field, and a solid rugby program, created a destination school for some of the top athletes participating in the Northern (and recently, Southern) California High School Rugby Programs. The Kevin Higgins Rugby Endowment was established that year through the efforts of the alumni, in order to honor the fallen ‘Mustang’, and provide a funding base for the future of the rugby program. Cal Poly Rugby continued to add depth to the coaching staff in 2000, welcoming back Phil Northcraft as Forward Coach, with stints from visiting professionals such as Gert Smal and Michael Du Plesis (SA Spring Boks) and Bruce Deans (NZ All-Blacks)
The Mustangs continued to build depth and experience throughout the 2000-2001 season challenging the best teams on the Pacific Coast, and finished the 2001 season (12-1) with a 2nd place finish in league to San Diego State, gaining their first birth in the National Tournament at Ohio State University. Cal Poly surprised the heavily favored (17-0) Buckeyes 25-17 in the Round of 16 and then fell to a talented Navy side in the Round of Eight, 30-14, in a match that was much closer than the score reflects, leaving Cal Poly with a #6 in the National Rankings. Standouts included: Barney Wair, Captain-John Kunz (Hayward RFC), Andy Neuman, Rob Gerner, Eric Rasch, Rob McVicar, Jeff Stanga, and Owen Hillerriver.
The 2002 team was a blend of championship-experienced veterans and talented newcomers. The coaching staff also grew in depth with the addition of Brian Wellens (St. Helens RFC-England) Backs Coach, Tony Broom (Harare Sorts Club-Zimbabwe) Development Team Coach, and Matt Farmer (SDSU RFC-1985) Medical Technician & Assistant Forwards Coach. The team of 60+ was now traveling and playing two separate schedules in order to gain playing experience for the development side. The Mustangs dominated their schedule (13-1) once again with their only season loss to San Diego State. (Poly was later awarded the 2002 League Championship when it was found that SDSU had carried nine illegal players throughout the season.) However, the Mustangs were forced to travel to West Point New York, as the SCRFU #2 seed and took an unexpected early exit, dropping their first-round match to St. Mary’s College in wet weather conditions, and also dropping the team to a rank of #12 overall. Standouts included Bryan Archibald, Ramon Acuna, and Dan Ryska.
The 2003 season was constructed as the final building block to the National Championships. From fall conditioning, through the league season, the Mustangs thoroughly dominated most every team in their path. Cal Poly finished their 2nd consecutive league championship with a regular-season total of (17-3) only losing to the San Francisco Olympic Club at the Silicon Valley Tournament, UCSB in a league finale shocker, and the University of Utah in the California Invitational Tournament. The team then went into post-season preparation with a 5-game tour to Ireland, amassing 4 wins and dropping the tour finale to Trinity College, in 9 days of games and intensified training sessions. The team headed back to West Point for their 3rd consecutive national tournament, bent on evening the score with repeat opponent St. Mary’s College, and then on to Army in the Elite 8. Poly’s championship tournament went according to plan in the first round handing St. Mary’s a payback score of 41-18 and then losing a heartbreaker 21-17 with Army scoring the go-ahead try in the last 90 seconds of the match. Poly’s strong finish earned them an overall #5 in the National rankings and saw Jason Lauritsen earn All-American honors, with John Kennard and Ed Frantz receiving honorable mention. Notable players included Matt Westcamp, Rod Stinson, Jimmy Hamlin, Captain-Nick Giacalone, and Jeff Dunlap.
Poly’s 2004 season hit the ground running, with only 4 changes from their 2003 starting team, and having the luxury of picking from a pool of 74 players. Senior, #8 John Kollerer stepped into the role of Captain, and the coaching staff was again bolstered with the return of Nick Massman (USA All-American 1990) as strength & conditioning coach, and a guest stint from Mike Howe (University Port Elizabeth, SA).
Poly thoroughly dominated their fall and league season (13-0-1) amassing 596 points for and 31 against in the eight-game league season, on their way to their 3rd consecutive SCRFU Championship. Poly then embarked on their 2nd boot-camp training trip to Ireland going 3-0 in 7 days culminating in a last-minute win over Trinity College, 31-26. With 4 days rest, and against the advice of several nay-sayers, Poly ventured up to Berkeley and dominated an albeit ‘detuned’ Cal side 59-18, in a pre-championship tune-up match.
Poly’s confidence was at an all-time high entering their 4th consecutive national championship, this time in Colorado Springs, and showed no mercy in their first-round dominance of Texas A&M, 59-4. But BYU was still heavily favored in the Round of Eight until Poly handed them their biggest upset in championship rugby, dominating the game 46-29.
Cal Poly entered their first National Final Four tournament with an undefeated record of 19-0-1 in 2004. After defeating the defending National Champions, Air Force, in a game touted as the match of the tournament, Cal Poly was set to play a well-rested Cal-Berkeley team. Although Cal Poly played with the Golden Bears for 80 minutes, the team came up a bit short and settled for the National Champion runners-up. The final ranking of #2 in collegiate rugby was the culmination of hard work and team unity established during rigorous conditioning practices throughout the season. A school-record seven players were honored as Collegiate All-Americans including Brian Barnard, Ed Frantz, John Kennard, Captain Jon Kollerer, Ronny Rosser, Tony Petruzella, and Jason Lauritsen for the second consecutive year. The loss to Cal-Berkeley was also the end of an era for Cal Poly as it saw many star players lost to graduation and the teams’ top coaches Charles Zanoli and Phil Northcraft retiring from their “Mustang” coaching duties. Standouts included Vaii Papali, Jason Lauritsen, Brian Permutt, John Kennard, Ryan Faries, Brian Barnard, Ed Frantz, and Matt Gallagher. Also, graduating were team presidents Mike Ranney (’02-’04) and Mike Johansen (’04).
Cal Poly entered 2005 with high expectations, but a lot of holes in the backline. The team hoped to ride its seasoned pack until their talented, but young, backs gained continuity. Unfortunately, the year began with the loss of 3 starters due to disciplinary reasons. Also, an injury to starting Eagles flanker Tony Petruzella (that kept him out for all but 80 minutes of the season) and the team not having access to a field until late January, hindered the team’s development and promise. Early heartbreakers to UCLA and UCSB squashed the Mustang’s goal of winning its 4th consecutive SCRFU title and returning to the National Tournament. However, the team showed its resilience by competing at its highest level for the remainder of the season. Led by All-American 8-man Jon Kollerer, the team began showing the promise that had Cal Poly ranked in the top 5 at the beginning of the year. Once fields were available and the backline rotation was secured, the team was hitting on all cylinders during the second half of the season. Though the team failed to reach their lofty early season goals, the seniors were able to gain some retribution by defeating an Army squad that many favored to all but Cal-Berkeley in the National Tournament. Lauren Brown, Mike Flaherty, Jon Kollerer, Matt Kramer, Kevin Lewis, Donovan Nixon, Peter Madonna, and Tony Petruzella ended their Mustang careers with a resounding win at home. Center Ed Pitts and Petruzella were given All-American accolades for their play during the year.