Columbia, SC (SOURCE)– Thirty-five freshmen make up the new class of student-athletes on the University of South Carolina Men’s Rugby team, bringing to the Gamecocks an exciting mixture of leadership and athleticism from across the nation that could have an impact on the program as early as this fall.
“We were very fortunate to lose only a handful of players this past semester, though our rising senior class is especially large, so it’s important that these men develop quickly to maintain our momentum and continued success,” said head coach Mark Morris. “Every new class brings with it its own personality and challenges, which we as a coaching staff have to compensate for and do our best to integrate into our existing game plan. I’m happy to say that we have met with or have been in contact with a majority of the incoming players and their families and I know they are committed to the program and are ready to make the transition to the collegiate level.”
The incoming class of thirty-five will hail from eleven different states, mostly in the eastern United States, and two foreign countries, Australia and France. Following those from the home state of South Carolina, the largest contingent of players will be coming from Maryland and New York, continuing a pattern which has amounted to nearly half of the team now being from the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. “I credit the demographic shift to the competitive level of youth rugby being played in those regions,” says Coach Morris. “It’s great to work with coaches like Lee Kelly from Gonzaga and Greg Norris from Xavier and learn that interest in our program continues to build and that high-caliber athletes want to compete at South Carolina. It’s also important to mention the level of homegrown talent that we expect to see this season from the Columbia and Charleston areas. Overall, in the mix, we have All-Americans, MVP’s, team captains, star athletes in their respective positions, and state and national champions. It’s our job as a coaching staff to channel these individual talents and to put the best possible product on the pitch.”
With the incoming players, combined with returning players and a number of walk-ons, the team should expect around 90 players the first few weeks before things being to settle. “Coach Darnell and I keep a very fluid roster,” added Coach Morris. “There is no guarantee from one week to the next who will start where or on which side. It’s important that we create the opportunity for advancement if we are to expect our players to improve and diversify their talents. If there’s one thing the incoming players will learn, it’s not to get content. Every week is a new slate.”
The incoming class as a whole also boasts an impressive academic resume with an average GPA of nearly 3.6. “The University has certainly elevated their academic standards in the last ten years when it comes to the admissions’ selection process, attracting some of the best minds from across the country,” says Coach Morris. “We have already seen this in recent years with seven of last year’s starters receiving USA Rugby Academic All-American honors for their dedication in the classroom, more than any other institution in the South and tied for 5th among all institutions nationwide. I strongly believe that players who compete full time while also enrolled in research studies, academic fraternities, and the University’s nationally recognized Honors College will become the norm in the next 5-10 years, which will only benefit the program as a whole. We already have a number of players, past and present, that fall into this category which has helped the team achieve a cumulative GPA of 3.2, exceeding that of the overall undergraduate student body.”
The Gamecocks received a tremendous boost on the recruitment front this past spring with the announcement of an endowed scholarship fund which will provide recipients with a nearly 47% reduction in their non-resident tuition rate. In the name of former player and current Carolina Rugby Foundation board member Jeffrey Smolka, the scholarships will be used to reward those who have contributed greatly to the program’s success over the past few years, as well as attract top talent from established programs across the nation. “Some of the doors that were closed shut to some recruits, some prospects, have been reopened in a positive way. I think for South Carolina, we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’re becoming a popular choice for accomplished rugby players,” says Morris. “We just announced the first class of well deserving recipients and we look forward to future players who will benefit from the Smolkas’ generosity.”
As USC’s overall winningest sport, the Men’s Rugby Team has certainly made a name for itself over the past few years, winning back-to-back Southeastern Rugby Conference 15’s Championships, advancing to the National Sweet 16 and Elite 8, receiving back-to-back SCRC Coach of the Year honors, and winning multiple tournaments in both rugby fifteens and rugby sevens. Not only were six of USC’s student athletes SCRC All-Conference players, junior flanker Dana Corcoran received SCRC Player of the Year honors as the ‘unsung hero of the Carolina pack’ for his ferocious tackling and outstanding defense and counter rucking, making him the third Gamecock in as many years to receive the award. Overall, the Gamecocks had a great Fall and Spring campaign, advancing in both versions of the game and elevating its program on the national scene.
“Our recent successes have presented us with a unique opportunity to compete against the nation’s best and to challenge ourselves above and beyond our normal play,” added Coach Morris. “We have learned a great deal these past few years and have grown immensely as a program, though, as always, there is still much to improve on and we’ll be looking to this incoming class to continue to drive the program forward and to raise the bar in what we can accomplish.”