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Harker Heights Evening Star
Harker Heights Evening Star

Chancellor’s Cup comes to A&M-Central Texas Saturday

Chancellor’s Cup comes to A&M-Central Texas Saturday

Special to the HHES

Three years ago, A&M-Central Texas employees whose offices in Founder’s Hall looked out onto the 672 acre hill country campus and saw what some referred to fondly as “a great big pile of dirt.”

Under the direction of the university’s CFO, Gaylene Nunn, and with the help of the A&M University System funds, the university embarked on an environmental project to prevent soil erosion, grading the land and planting crepe myrtle and native grasses. No one could have imagined then that in a few short years, what was once an idle hill of dirt would become the playing field on which A&M-Central Texas would initiate the first of what may be many athletic club sports: rugby.

Developed under the guidance of Dr. Tracy Teaff, daughter of legendary Baylor football coach, Grant Teaff, what had begun as just an idea began to take shape. Volunteer coaches were identified and players were recruited. Partnerships with Temple College and Central Texas College presented another opportunity, as freshmen and sophomore players were advised and registered for courses leading to their transfer to A&M-Central Texas.

It was then that these new student athletes, some of whom had never held a rugby ball much less played an entire game, began their training and entered a regional league with other colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, at a meeting in College Station, A&M-Central Texas president, Dr. Marc Nigliazzo, mentioned another first in the life of the (then) not quite four year old university to Chancellor John Sharp. To his surprise, the chancellor remembered fondly his days as a student athlete at A&M – on the university’s rugby team.

And it was at that moment, Chancellor Sharp had a vision of his own. There would be a rugby tournament and a Chancellor’s Cup. A very, very large Chancellor’s cup. And it would be awarded to the winner of the tournament annually.

This Saturday, at 11 a.m., five men’s rugby teams including A&M-Central Texas, Prairie View A&M, Tarleton State, A&M-College Station and A&M-San Antonio will compete in a series of ‘sevens’ – seven players playing seven minute halves – and while it may be only the 2nd Annual Chancellor’s Cup Tournament, the A&M-Central Texas rugby team is already making a name for itself around campus for their grit, determination, and courage.

For example, volunteer Coach Raymond Vitale, a former U.S. Marine, once mowed the grass on the 2.5 acre pitch literally by hand – with a push mower – because that’s how he likes it.

And his team is no different: By the numbers, there are fewer than 10 hardscrabble rugby athletes – barely enough to field a team in the very likely instance of an injury. But these student athletes are different; virtually all of them are either currently serving or retired from military service, representing the US Army and the US Marine Corps. A few are married to an active duty military service members.

But rugby Coach Vitale likes what he is seeing: a team that may have to be taught the game, but not how to play it. Things like courage, discipline, determination and dedication are already a part of their skills set as a result of their military service.

For example, when the pitch was in development and a sprinkler system was scheduled for installation, the entire team spent hours on the field, removing the original sprinkler heads that had been installed during the erosion project only to reattach them – again by hand weeks later – because it saved money, and the wanted to stretch every dollar. But they didn’t stop there.

“One day, I looked out my office window and saw the entire team struggling to put up the goal posts,” said Tetyana Quiles. “They didn’t have a crane or a lift or any kind of mechanical help. They just worked together to figure it out. It’s just part of what we do as a new university,” she concluded. ”We find a way.”

As with most things, finding a way has been made significantly easier by the generosity of donors – Bruce Whitis of Killeen, Steve and Mary Hanik of Florence, and Ted Paup of Ft. Worth – each of whom recognized the innovative spirit of this upstart club sports team as something that might just prove itself to be the cornerstone of a significant athletic program in the future.

Josh Welch, confirms the importance of community, adding, “Mr. Whitis grew up in Killeen and his family has resided here since the 1800’s. The family has a long history of focusing on the quality of life here, and we believe that A&M-Central Texas plays a key role in that. It is an honor for Mr. Whitis to support the university and community by building the field and making the rugby pitch possible. It’s an example of what we can do when we work together to support each other.”

Dr. Tracy Teaff, now retired, couldn’t agree more.

“We not only have a rugby pitch, but we have the newest and possibly best pitch of all the system members, thanks to The Whitis Family,” she noted. “Mr. Whitis, through the generous donation of machinery, materials, men, and time, made possible the literal foundation of the rugby program. Excavation and grading of “the hill” developed the the location for an international size rugby pitch on our campus and a place where students, staff, faculty and community can gather.”

Dr. Marc Nigliazzo, President of Texas A&M University-Central Texas, could not be more proud of the fledgling team than if he’d been numbered among them on the playing field. “A while back, in one of our first competitions a year or so ago, one of the young men walked up to me as I stood on the sidelines, and apologized to me for not winning the tournament that day,” he recalled.

“And I said, ‘Son. You see your competitors out there? Their universities have had rugby teams for decades. Some of them for more than a half century. We’ve only just begun to learn this game, and you have the courage to get out there and play. And you almost won. Don’t you apologize. Not for a thing. You’re the first in a long line of other teams that will follow this one over the years. It’s always hardest when you’re first. We’re proud of you.”

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