Gannon University students Mark Lesniewski and Bryan Stein knew bringing one of the fastest growing college sports in rugby to their school wouldn’t be a tough sell.
But it turned out the only thing that moved more rapidly than the sport’s popularity was the time it took the students to introduce a club team at Gannon.
“From the point of where we started to where we were approved for club status, it was only about a month,” Stein, a team captain and vice president, said.
Lesniewski, a senior psychology major, and Stein, a sophomore Sports Management and Marketing major, had been playing for Penn State Behrend’s club team when they came up with the idea to start a team at Gannon.
“Over Christmas break, I was like, ‘You know, I don’t want to play there anymore,’ so I called Mark and was like ‘You want to try to start a team here?’ He said, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Stein said.
However, there was one catch to the proposition they faced: they wanted field a team by the time the spring season started in March.
This meant going through Gannon’s rigorous process to establish club activities for Stein and Lesniewski, who first met with Director of Student and Organizations and Leadership Development Beth Schick in February when they began drafting a constitution, per Gannon club rules. Stein and Lesniewski then met with Don Henry, director of recreation at the Carneval Athletic Pavilion, to discuss the final criteria to earn approval as a university club.
“At first,” Lesniewski, the club President, said, “Don Henry was pretty skeptical, as anyone would be.”
But the students continued to press on as they signed up more players and gained a coach, Tom Banko and an adviser in Matt Ward, the resident director of Finegan Hall.
Banko, a graphic designer in Gannon’s marketing department, helped recruit players from the team by designing and distributing posters around campus.
He said clubs face challenges different from varsity teams.
“It can be tough because the season is short and everyone has different schedules,” he said. “I try to rally the team to where we’re all on the same page and can all be together.”
When the Knights got the OK in late February, they wasted no time and started practice immediately.
“When we had that first practice, it was such a good feeling to know we did it,” Lesniewski said. “It was one of the greater things I’ve done at Gannon.”
At least 18 players now make up the team’s roster, which includes soccer players, wrestlers, and a water polo player as well as a swimmer.
Lesniewski said each Gannon club member must meet a set of requirements: maintain a 2.0 GPA, have a physical on file, carry medical insurance, sign a Gannon club sports agreement—a liability waiver—and register with USA Rugby, the national governing body of the sport.
However, the most daunting obligation the team faces, Lesniewski said, is Gannon’s requirement of having a balanced budget — one of many monetary challenges the team faces.
In addition, USA Rugby stipulates that teams pay for CIPP (Club Individual Participation Program), the body’s third party liability insurance, which costs each Gannon player $40 per year for coverage, Stein said.
It’s also up to the players to cover other expenses, including travel costs and the minimal equipment they use. Gannon paid for the team’s uniforms and dues to the Three River Conference, the league the team competes in.
“That’s pretty much all we ask of them to pay for,” Stein said. “Our goal is to be a cheap sport because rugby really doesn’t require much and we want to keep it low-cost for people to enjoy it.”
Gannon plays its home games at the Boys and Girls Club Field, located at East 10th and Gilson, but hopes to eventually move to Gannon University Field to attract more interest, Stein said.
The team currently carries a 1-3 record, having defeated Penn State Behrend 41-0 on April 13. Geneva College, Washington & Jefferson and Robert Morris universities all defeated the Knights, who will play their final three games of the season at the Mad Anthony Tournament, hosted by the Erie Rugby Club beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Boys and Girls Club.
Banko said that despite the Knights’ record, their future is bright.
“There’s a heck of a lot of potential on this team,” he said. “With some of these guys, I can’t believe that this is their first time playing.”
Stein, who will take over the reins once Lesniewski graduates, said getting enough players will remain his top priority.
“The big thing is looking for recruitment; anyone can join and there’s no experience necessary,” he said.
Lesniewski, whose father, John, is president of the Erie Rugby Club, said he doesn’t see participation being a problem.
“I know of six players already who will be freshmen in the fall,” he said. “I think it will be all right. I just told them to make sure they put posters and sign-up sheets in every single dorm.”