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CWU Wildcats Rugby: On a Mission

Written By: Mark Janzen

Traveling from the West, the wind turbines to the North signal that Ellensburg, Washington isn’t much further down the I-90 – the state’s only divided highway that cuts across the state east to west.

The surrounding fields of hay-producing soil – this is where the big bucks are made within the region – insist that Central Washington University is just a few rolling hills away.

Aptly named for its location in the middle of the state, Central (as the Ellensburgians and most other Washingtonians call it) sits just over 100 miles to the east of Seattle. Yet, with the towering Cascade Range separating Ellensburg from its hipster-heavy coastal neighbour, CWU might as well be in another state.

With the local farming community known worldwide for its timothy hay – an upper-crust product that is almost entirely exported to Japan and, to a lesser degree, South Korea, China and the United Arab Emirates – the radio station, 95.3 KXLE, blasting country music to Kittitas County, who boast the largest annual rodeo in the state, Ellensburg doesn’t scream PNW. But that’s exactly how the locals like it.

And it’s here, in a town populated by around 20,000 people, where the CWU rugby team has made a name for itself since 1972.

It’s here where the Wildcats, hailing from a NCAA Division II school with around 12,000 students, have become a national power within collegiate rugby – a program that hangs with the BYUs and the Cals of the rugby world. Taking on the pervasive attitude of the region, the hard-working and physically daunting Wildcats have long been and continue to be every bit Ellensburg as the hay-growing farmers and the boot-wearing cowboys.

Wildcats coach Todd Thornley stood amongst his players in an arms-linked circle. It seemed this might be the last time CWU’s 15s side would play together this season. A 38-22 loss to Brigham Young University at CWU’s Wildcat Rugby Pitch felt like the end of the 2018 season.

The message from Thornley was appropriately reflective, as he gave a nod to the graduating senior athletes, thanking them for their time with the program and congratulating the team on a hard-fought season.

In just his second year as the Wildcats head coach, Thornley, who hails from Blenheim, New Zealand, had guided CWU through arguably the toughest schedule in program history – one that included a game each against D1A No. 1-ranked St. Mary’s and No. 5 Lindenwood and a home-and-home series with No. 4 BYU – but the end result was a 3-6 record and losses against all four of those highly-ranked opponents.

Entering the weekend on the outside of the 16-team national championship playoff bracket, Thornley wasn’t convinced his team had done enough in their final contest to sway the voters.

He looked at the portable scoreboard that sat across the field still reading the game’s final score.

“Sixteen points is quite a bit,” he said, lamenting what a closer loss might have meant to his young squad.

Six hours later, flyhalf Scott Dean (one of the seniors honoured prior to Saturday’s contest) and a number of his teammates gathered back at his house – one he shares with fellow seniors Ian Wright and Corey Nuti and sophomore captain Deven Marshall. Albeit seemingly slim, they still held hope that a playoff berth was a possibility. A six-member voting panel would decide the final few spots based on the day’s results.

If they had taken a cue from Thornley’s post-game talk, hope would have been scarce. But these are students. Excitement for an unknown future is where they thrive.

At 9:13 p.m., they sat in the living room of the house on North Chestnut Street,  situated just a few hundred yards from Wildcat Rugby Pitch. At 9:14 p.m., a group text came in from Thornley.

“We are off to Georgia next weekend vs Life! Game on!! Look after your body! Got to recover!”

Like those scenes blasted in ads of NCAA basketball teams on Selection Sunday, the house became a portrait of delirium.

To use a pun that’s all too low-hanging – but which begs to be included – the Wildcats had Life. Perhaps the voters saw the Wildcats trail by just two points, 19-17, early in the second half. Perhaps the 16-point deficit was close enough for voters to be convinced of CWU’s resumé. Or perhaps it was simply the eye test over a season that featured one of the toughest schedules in the country.

Seeded No. 15 in the tournament, CWU learned its round of 16 match-up would be against No. 2-seeded Life University, who finished their spring schedule with a 9-0 record, highlighted by two wins over Lindenwood (22-18 and 31-12).

While the invitation to the playoff dance had the Wildcats doing a certain jig within the confines of a certain N Chestnut Street home, there was also probably a smile that found its way across CWU in varying facets of the University. Sure the contest with the Running Eagles would provide valuable experience to a relatively young Wildcats side, but it would also deliver yet another opportunity to put CWU on the national collegiate stage.

Forty-six years ago, the CWU rugby club was born.

While the club built a strong tradition as lovable social gathering, it was under the guidance of Jason Ray, who coached the Wildcats during the 1990s and early 2000s, when program began to shift from casual to competitive.

Then, in 2002, Bob Ford took over and helped bring the program into an altogether new stratosphere of competition. Ford, who is now the Senior Director, Alumni & Constituent Relations at CWU, led the team until 2010, helping to set the Wildcats up for what has been a particularly impressive string of success over the last decade.

"(Bob) is probably the one who took us from that social club setting to competing at the highest level and getting the guys to train and perform at the highest level,” Thornley says.

Then, in 2010, Ford moved on and Tony Pacheco took over, sparking a six-year run in which he helped orchestrate the program’s elevation to varsity status in 2014 – a move that put CWU amongst a very small group of public institutions that had rugby on its varsity program.

“We had a national calibre rugby program that we felt deserved to be elevated and funded at a higher level, so our student-athletes could continue to pursue their passion and represent our university on a national level,” says Director of Athletics Dennis Francois, who helped lead the program’s transition to the varsity level. “I think it’s been a great asset for our university.” 

Moving to the upper level of athletics at CWU also further exhibited the University’s support for rugby. As Francois explains, even CWU president James L. Gaudino gets the value of the game, having once played himself at the United States Air Force Academy.

“He knows what the sport is all about and he loves it – seeing our rugby players on the national stage competing against the likes of Cal and BYU,” Francois says. “It’s a source of pride for our university for sure.”

Around the time of program’s change in status at CWU, the Wildcats made four straight semifinal appearances in the recently disbanded Varsity Cup (2013-2016), losing twice each to long-standing rugby powers California (2014 and 2016) and BYU (2013 and 2015).

Pacheco ultimately begat Thornley, who was a graduate assistant under the former Wildcats coach for two years before taking over the head coaching position in 2016.

Second-year No. 8 Alex Mackenzie pauses for a moment when asked to describe the culture Thornley is aiming to cultivate at CWU.

“He’s all about growing the players on and off the field,” says Mackenzie, who scored two of CWU’s four tries in the Wildcats regular season finale against BYU. “He’s really big on off-field stuff like academics and you as a person and your attitude and giving back to the community.”

He pauses again. This time a little longer.

“To be honest, I’ve become a better person on and off the field because of him.”

With a relatively young squad – CWU’s website lists 21 of the Wildcats 32 players as either freshmen or sophomores – Thornley is putting his stamp the program. Indeed the Wildcats have already had some great on-field success under Thornley – winning the West Coast 7s last October, including a first-ever win over the University of California, definitely a shiny badge – and they have certainly produced an impressive alumni base that includes the likes of capped USA Eagles Tim Stanfill (XV: 6), Aladdin Schirmer (XV: 2, 7s: 2), Pat Blair (XV: 1, 7s: 8) and Seth Halliman (7s: 1), but Thornley has goals beyond just winning games and developing good rugby players.

“I’m just trying to create a culture that is similar to any high performance rugby team around the world,” says Thornley. “First and foremost, they have to be good people. We have a saying that’s basically, ‘better people make better Wildcat rugby players.’”

Growing up in a small town on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, Thornley’s family was involved in both farming and viticulture. So, when he found his way to Ellensburg after a year as an assistant coach at Dartmouth College, it felt like a bit of a homecoming.

And the blue-collar attitude embedded in CWU’s surrounding area seemed to perfectly emulate both Thornley as a person and the culture he is aiming to foster.

“Coach Thornley is a stickler for discipline and executing at a high level and developing a positive culture within the team,” Francois says.

When the each week begins, Thornley preaches his “Earn the Jersey” mantra – a motto that resonates well with his players.

“We have to earn the right to wear the jersey and then do the jersey justice when we wear it,” says Dean, finishing his fifth year with the Wildcats and who also has experience with USA Rugby, having played with both the High School All-American Team and the Men's Collegiate All Americans. “There has definitely been a shift in the culture over the last couple of years, with academics and the off-field stuff (including work with Habitat for Humanity and the local food bank). And he definitely pushes us in training.”

There was a moment, about five minutes into the second half against the Cougars, when it looked like maybe, just maybe, this could be the Wildcats' day. Mackenzie touched down for CWU’s third try on an overcast, yet surprisingly dry and windless April afternoon, putting Wildcats within two points, 19-17, of visiting BYU. However, within 20 minutes, the Cougars surged ahead with three consecutive tries en route to the 16-point win. While the loss stung, it remained a statement that eventually earned the Wildcats a playoff position – something that long-time BYU coach David Smyth recognized.

“Central is a big, physical team,” Smyth said following the game. “They’ll meet you up front. They’ll try to out physical you. They’re a team that’s going to try to get on the front foot and put you under a lot of pressure.

“When you play against them you have to work for and earn everything you get.”

Given Thornley’s efforts to build into the Wildcats culture, Smyth’s assessment would seem to be the highest of compliments.

The Wildcats will leave for Marietta, Georgia – home of Life University – on Friday morning for their Saturday afternoon match (2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT). They thought about leaving Thursday, but Thornley preferred the idea of allowing his students another day in class. The other simple reality is that one less night on the road is one less hotel cost for an appropriately budget-conscious program.

Upon arrival in Georgia, the task in front of Thornley and his team will be large. While beating a team like Life, who Thornley says is “…probably the best defensive team in the country,” would be a sizeable upset, the Kiwi coach has seen enough from his players this year to believe it’s possible.

“It’s certainly within reach,” he says. “It’s going to come down to doing the little things really well and standing up in those big moments. But there’s no reason why we can’t do the job this weekend.”

For what would appear to be an up-and-coming Wildcats side, Dean also sees this as both a perfect sendoff for the senior class and a critical piece for the future of the program.

“You can’t replicate playing in the playoffs,” says Dean. “Hopefully we can make a deep run, but either way we’ll have one game and the young guys can see what it’s like moving forward.”

In the week leading up to the Wildcats final home game, they announced two commitments for the fall – Englishman Henry Foster and New Zealander Elliot Finn, who is transferring from Iowa Central Community College. The announcements are yet another example of the Wildcats, who already possess players from England, Ireland, South Africa and Zimbabwe, owning a reputation that extends far beyond the hay fields and U-Tote-Ems (a two-location local burger joint that has been a local institution since the early 1950s) of Ellensburg.

“It’s been cool to help lead and expose Central Washington to a greater population, who may have had no idea who Central Washington was,” Thornley says.

Further to the tale, next year the rugby team will move into a revamped Tomlinson Stadium and join the football team in a refurbished stadium that will feature artificial turf and give the rugby program a chance to play under the lights for the first time. Four years after the team moved to varsity status, it’s another signal of the University’s support of its rugby program and another move towards national prestige.

On Friday, the Wildcats will take the I-90, travelling past the wind turbines and through the oft-rainy Cascade Range en route to Seattle, where they’ll catch a flight to Georgia.

It’ll be yet another chance for the Ellensburg-based university to be in the national spotlight and an opportunity for valley-living Wildcats to ruck it up with the best in the country.