Once ragtag, Temple rugby players playing with pride
FORGIVE JOHN SCIOTTO if he has a bad case of the head spins. As he takes his Temple rugby club to the Collegiate Rugby Sevens Championships at PPL Park in Chester this weekend, Sciotto reflects on his tenure as the club's coach: embarrassing losses, monumental wins, a national championship loss, a move from Division II to Division I, a berth in the national championship Sweet 16 earned without his best player, a transgender player at tryouts.
FORGIVE JOHN SCIOTTO if he has a bad case of the head spins.
As he takes his Temple rugby club to the Collegiate Rugby Sevens Championships at PPL Park in Chester this weekend, Sciotto reflects on his tenure as the club's coach: embarrassing losses, monumental wins, a national championship loss, a move from Division II to Division I, a berth in the national championship Sweet 16 earned without his best player, a transgender player at tryouts.
And the deaths of two club alumni and a promising young player within months of each other.
"Yeah. We've been through a lot," said Sciotto, who took over the program in the spring of 2008.
"The world was crumbling around you," said Temple star Gareth Jones, a senior.
As it enters this weekend's bash - a prelude for local fans for the sport that will be on exhibition at the Summer Olympics in London next year and a medal sport in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 - the Temple program is best known not for its trip to the Division II title game after the 2009-10 season, or for its fine run through this past season, which ended with a loss in the Sweet 16 to Bowling Green.
No, the tragic loss of Josias Sterling in July 2009 is what gave Temple rugby a brief run of buzz. While fooling around with teammates in waist-deep water off Ocean City, N.J., where they planned to play in an annual sevens tournament, Sterling, 19, was swept out by a riptide and drowned.
His death further galvanized a program known for years as a talented club without focus.
The Owls had turned a corner that spring with an upset win over a Delaware club that had dominated them.
But Sterling's passing helped fuse the Owls on their run to the title game in the 2010 season, their subsequent jump to Division I this past season and their continued rise.
They wore his initials on their shorts. They wrote his initials on their taped wrists. Their shirts at the D-II national championships bore his face. Nobody wore his No. 6 jersey until late in the season, Jones said, when his best friend finally donned it in his honor.
They will wear those old "JS" shorts again this weekend - an event in which he surely would have stood out.
"Since he died, whenever we've doubted ourselves, or went down, we've felt we have a little bit of extra strength behind us," Jones said.
So much so that Temple has lost just twice since the jump to D-I - a jump made without Jones, a center. The sport and recreation management major spent the year on an internship in Ireland, where he played with the Young Munster club - a feeder club for a professional team - and tried out for the USA sevens team.
Jones is back, primed for the CRC Sevens. Temple plays Arizona at 12:10 p.m., the first of three matches the Owls will play that day. He has needed every ounce of inspiration the memory of Sterling, a fellow St. Joe's Prep product, could provide.
Jones broke his hand in the round of 16 of the Division II tournament two seasons ago, sat out one game, but was back for the Final Four and the final, his hand in a cast. He missed two games in Ireland in November with a cut on his hand. He separated his shoulder in February, which cost him two games immediately and hindered the rest of his season.
Mainly, he played through it all. He's a rugger.
His arm could be falling off and he would play this weekend.
"Each and every day, I wake up and can't wait for this weekend to get here," Jones said. "It's absolutely massive. Especially with sevens becoming an Olympic sport. This version of rugby is going to take off in this country. And Philadelphia is a hub for rugby."
And Temple is a legitimate program, as college rugby programs go.
Only a handful of college teams are at the varsity level, such as the dynastic University of California-Berkeley and Utah. The formation of the USA Rugby College Premier Division this year opened 16 Division I spots. Temple filled one of them.
The Owls never would have been there without Sciotto.
Unpaid but undeterred, the 35-year-old father of three and his assistant, Alan Chmielewski, took over a program long on talent but short on focus. Owen Jones, Gareth's older brother, had been serving as player/coach, captain and president.
Within a year, Sciotto, nicknamed "Spider," had the team organized, with different players serving in different offices and a steady stream of talent streaming in from the Prep. Owen Jones, seeing the club in good hands, had moved on to the Media Rugby Football Club.
"He is a really good player, but he wasn't improving anymore," Gareth Jones said. "He was so worn out, he was looking for an opportunity to just play."
Sciotto, a player in the late 1990s at Penn State, brought a demanding training regimen and no tolerance for finger-pointing or bickering, even from himself. He lost a couple of players, and, one sad spring day, a miserable match, 70-0 to Salisbury.
That week, he and Chmielewski rethought their philosophy.
"We really had to examine ourselves, if what we were doing was the right thing," Sciotto said.
The next week, they beat Delaware.
"When we beat them, it was, like, if we actually got our act together, we could beat the top teams," Gareth Jones said. "That was a wakeup call for us."
Now, when new players try out for the team, there is structure, there are expectations, and consequences. There is attraction, too.
Players from all over the country and overseas - one from South Africa - have contacted Sciotto about playing at Temple; that is the depth of love for the sport. One of the better players in action this weekend, LuQman Harper, is a product of the Hyde Charter School in Washington, D.C.
The transgender player will not be playing; didn't make the team.
Wasn't good enough.
"That just shows our diversity," Gareth Jones said. "He totally would have been welcomed on our club." *