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Having made history with its first-ever trip to Bermuda for a spring tournament, Penn rugby appears to be a program on the rise despite its club status.

Credit: Will Snow

It’s been quite the arms race for Penn Athletics’ traveling in recent weeks. Wrestling found itself in St. Louis last week for the NCAA Championships. Men’s tennis headed to New Orleans to compete over spring break. A trio of Red and Blue teams played in Florida during break. Women’s basketball flew to Los Angeles for the second time this season for its March Madness game.

But the best trip of all? It didn’t even come from a varsity team.

Last weekend, Penn club men’s rugby made history by competing in the Ariel Re Bermuda 7s tournament, finishing 4-2 in the 12-team competition and taking home the “Bowl Trophy” by finishing first place in the consolation bracket.

“It sounded like a great opportunity for the club, considering we had never really done any trips like that in the past,” sophomore and Penn Rugby Vice President Taylor Martinez said. “We got to bond as a team, which was cool, and come home with some hardware.”

Though the concept of traveling outside the bubble of Ivy League and other Philadelphia schools had been discussed for years, the team hadn't been able to string together the organization and resources to turn that dream of international travel into a reality in decades — until this year, that is.

“It was something we talked about for a couple of years, and it was some of the younger guys on the team that really bought in and sort of made it happen,” junior and Penn Sports Club Council President David Harris said. “It was in between [in terms of players or head coach Nic Clapinson facilitating the trip]; over the winter, he said that he wanted to take the program a step forward and take some more serious tournaments.”

Motivation was only part of the battle, though, as the squad faced logistic challenges unlike anything a Penn varsity team would encounter. While most varsity teams have equipment, meals, transportation and lodging funded by the school, club student-athletes generally handle the bulk of these responsibilities on their own, and the Bermuda trip was no exception.

But with a series of innovative moves — including the team’s first ever “Bike-A-Thon,” a fundraising event DJ’ed by sprint football quarterback Zack DiGregorio, a fraternity brother of Harris, Martinez and President Matt Caltabiano — the team was able to muster enough money to send itself to the tropics.

“The logistics of anything we try to do in a club sport are all student-run; club sports are supposed to be leadership opportunities for students, which is something that we’re really proud of,” Harris said. “We talk about that all the time, that we learn as much doing rugby stuff and getting real world experience as we would in any class.”

Once actually on the field, things got off to a rough start for Penn, as the team lost its opening two games against Ariel Re and Kutztown’s B team — who finished second and fourth, respectively — by a combined score of 64-10.

After that, though, it was smooth sailing for the Red and Blue. Though Penn’s 1-2 record in pool play left it short of qualifying for the winners’ bracket — via point differential, it was the only third-place team in its respective pool to miss out — Penn responded by winning out en route to taking the “Bowl,” led by the team’s Most Outstanding Player, Alex Salazar.

“We had a really hard first day, and everyone was kind of down, but we really rallied and had a positive attitude on the second day,” Harris said. “And that was really good growth, because when we were younger, a lot of times we’d have a bad first day and just be like, ‘let’s just go out and get it over with; we’re not competing for the championship,’ so it was good to have that resilience.”

Getting to face such strong competition was obviously beneficial, but the trip’s goals included far more than improving on the pitch. With the players getting to travel to local beaches, eat meals together, explore the Bermudian night scene and even all sleep in the same room in army barracks, the weekend was going to be rewarding no matter what happened on the field.

“It was a lot of fun; right after a practice we all went to Horseshoe Bay Beach, and everyone took off their uniforms and jumped into the water, and it was freezing but a lot of fun. We hung out a lot during the tournament, and at night on Saturday we went out as a team,” Caltabiano said. “It was good to play against higher level competition, but team bonding-wise, it was definitely an awesome time.”

Having thrived both on and off the field, the squad will enter the remainder of its season with momentum. Next up for Penn Rugby is the Ivy League 15s Playoffs in late March, which the Quakers advanced to for the first time since 2013-14.

Following that, the team has its lone home competition of the semester when it hosts the City Six Tournament at Penn Park on April 5, before it heads into the Ivy Sevens Playoffs over Easter weekend.

And as Penn Rugby prepares for the meat of its spring season, it’s clear that last weekend was only the latest example of what’s long been evident inside the club — this program is on the rise.

“It’s just really cool to see how it’s grown from year-to-year. It’s a big part of my college experience, and watching people care more and more about the sport, both in a national sense and in the University, is awesome,” Harris said. “Watching kids on campus take it more seriously as a sport, it’s been a really rewarding experience.”