Club hockey and rugby take steps to build their programs

By on March 26, 2017

By Dalton Ray–

The University of Louisville is known for its athletics. With some of the top athletics facilities and one of the biggest college sports markets in the nation, it’s easy to see why the school thrives in its 21 varsity sports.

Like other universities, U of L also offers club sports, including men’s lacrosse, ultimate frisbee, bowling and fencing. Two club sports that are picking up support are the hockey and rugby teams.

Between no on-campus facilities, little funding and juggling of school with athletics, it’s not easy being a student-athlete for a club sport. There is a slight comparison to club student-athletes and varsity student-athletes, but the club student-athlete doesn’t get the benefits during or after college the varsity student-athlete does.

With little reward to club sports, all players come out for one reason: love for the game.

“(Playing club hockey at Louisville) gives me a chance to continue to play the sport I love while attending a great school,” sophomore Yiannis Soukas said. “It’s really not about getting any type of reward out of it, but I enjoy playing hockey at a competitive level and playing hockey at U of L gives me that opportunity.”

Freshman Kameron Gladney plays club rugby for the same reason.

“I do it because I have a passion for the game and I know God has me here for a reason not just for rugby but for this university,” Gladney said. “We’re making history.”

Hockey coach Brian Graham and rugby coach Emil Walton both volunteer their time to coach after being approached by players to run the program. Graham runs an insurance agency and Walton owns a remodeling and design company. After 5 p.m., you can find Graham in the rink and Walton on the pitch.

Graham is originally from Connecticut and graduated from the University of Kentucky. He played for UK for three years and coached for two. After denying the U of L job serval times, Graham finally accepted in 2011.

“I love the game and I love to watch kids grow with the game,” Graham said. “None of these guys here are going pro, they’re here getting their degree. Some of the guys will be engineers, gym teachers, business owners. I want to give them their last bit of competitive hockey before that.”

Born in Namibia and growing up in South Africa, Walton spent his life traveling and playing rugby. After settling in Louisville with his wife, Walton played for the city’s club team for 10 years. Walton sees the value of coaching past money.

“My payment is seeing these kids develop into elite players. My payment is knowing that with the right guidance these kids will take the lessons taught through the game of rugby and implement it in life after college,” Walton said. “Rugby is more than a sport and I’ve seen it change people into better versions of themselves. If I change the life of one kid, then that’s payment enough.”

St. X graduate Nick Nuss is a geography major that has been playing hockey in Louisville since his youth.

“I play hockey for the love of the sport,” Nuss said. “It is going out on the ice for practice and ultimately going out there and competing in games.  Second, is for the school, I love U of L and being able to wear the Cardinal on my chest is an honor.”

The hockey team has yielded increasing success since Graham took over. The Cardinals currently play in the Tri-State Collegiate Hockey League, an American Club Hockey Association Division II level ice hockey league with 10 other schools. Their regular season takes place from September through February. The team’s home matches are played at Iceland Sports Complex.

The Cardinals finished 2016-2017 with a program-best 28-9-1 record and won their third straight TSCHL playoff conference championship. U of L lost to Penn State in regionals, who finished No. 18 in the M2 National Tournament final rankings.

Six players were selected to the TSCHL All-Star team: Soukas, Nuss, senior Deek Piekarczyk, sophomore Tyler Bradford, freshman Shane Cross and freshman Collin Frederick. Graham is also helping coach.

Soukas is a physical education major from Canada. A friend of Soukas played for the club two years ago and when Graham reached out, Soukas joined.

“The fans’ backing our hockey team is far better than anything I ever expected coming to Louisville, of all places to play hockey,” Soukas said. “We normally average about a hundred fans a game but we recently broke our record for attendance at our last home game (against) UK where we had to turn people away due to capacity issues with our rink.”

Graham uses his connections to pull players to the city because Louisville isn’t a hotbed for hockey. Establishing a winning program, Graham thinks the team can take the next step up, but finances play a huge role.

“I’d love to see this be a Division I club team … it’s a matter of getting funding from the school. Of the 60 schools in ACHA Divison I, about 90 percent get funding from the school. We don’t get any,” Graham said. “We’re self-funded and each three grand to play. We’re fortunate to get a good gate at games and have sponsors, but we still have a lot of ground to make up.”

Patrick Wilbourn heard of rugby from a friend and was hooked during the first practice. Wilbourn said the relationship between players on the team is unlike anything he has seen and there is a buzz around the program.

“When people find out I play rugby for the club, it’s usually followed by questions and wanting more information,” Wilbourn said. “Most of the questions are out of curiosity about the program, which is why I believe this program would take off if backed by the university.”

Founded in 2008, the rugby team’s season is split into the fall and spring seasons. Fall is played with 15 players and 40-minute halves while the spring is played with seven players and seven-minute halves. Louisville plays their home games at Cherokee Park.

While the hockey team has enjoyed recent success, rugby has had tough sailing in the D1AA Mid-American Conference. The Cardinals are 1-8-1 in conference the past two years and Walton is expected to turn the program around. Joining the team in the summer of 2016, he has seen a change in the team.

“The culture within the program took a significant turn in the direction of taking this game more seriously. The work ethic is phenomenal. The players started realizing that the more work they put in on and off the field, the better the results personally and as a program,” Walton said. “The commitment to this team and each other has elevated our game into a program that has the ability to perform at a very high level.”

Senior Ryan Whitaker is the president of the club and said Walton has changed the program.

“(Walton) came in, taught us the right way to play and everyone picked it up immediately. The two previous years, we won one game and lost eight. Last fall, we were one point away from going to the MAC tournament,” Whitaker said.

Junior Larome White and senior Pio Vatuvei were both selected to the All-American Camp to try out for the USA Collegiate team, making Louisville the only D1AA school to have two players sent.

The team is midway through their spring season. Gladney joined the team after being recruited from Texas and said the program is surging.

“I was recruited by the last coach not knowing he was leaving … I just took a leap of faith,” Gladney said. “Teams know we are on the rise. Now that we have beat some good teams we have slowly been challenging ourselves by playing powerhouses like Notre Dame and Lindenwood. We also recruit out of state like myself and Tommy Luc from Maryland.”

Walton said the goal for the rugby team is the be a varsity sport, but that time is down the line.

“That’s the end goal, but at this point in time we are taking it one step at a time,” Walton said. “I think that it will be beneficial for U of L to help us with some funding and facilities to grow this program. Kutztown and the University of Notre Dame, for example, is a club sports program, but they have lured kids from all over because of a program that they have established.”

Like hockey, funding is an issue. Walton said if the school can help fund them, the players who come will bring the money back to the university by attending school.

“With an operating budget of $50,000 per year and a facility that we can utilize in the winter, we can establish and develop a decent program that will have a foundation to build on,” Walton said. “Once we have established that winning program, potential student-athletes will want to come. The return on investment is huge.”

For both programs, the teams are gaining exposure and fan support. Over time, rugby and hockey could both take the next step. And with the right funding, both could one day be a varsity sport for the University of Louisville.

If you’re interested in joining the hockey team, contact Graham at coach@cardsicehockey.com. For rugby, contact Walton at cardsrugbymanagement@gmail.com.

Photo by Thomas Luc / Louisville Rugby

About Dalton Ray

Sports editor (2016-2018) that is technically award winning.Email: dray@louisvillecardinal.com

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