VA Tech’s men’s rugby team takes on a former wrestler & sprinter - Collegiate Rugby Championship
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From a track star to a wrestler, Virginia Tech’s men’s rugby club has successfully been pulling in players with all sorts of athletic backgrounds to compete in its fifth consecutive appearance at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship.

Head Coach Paul Caron has been hard at work determining who the Hokies will bring as their squad of 12 for the 2017 CRC. He considers the most skilled for the job, with age having no bearing on who makes the cut. Last year seven of the 12 were seniors and five of the seven starters were seniors, leaving a gap for the 2017 season.

“We have our 7s team completely committed this semester to the CRC and we’re playing four tournaments before we get there. We have a younger squad this year- we’re only graduating one player at the end of the semester and then everyone will be back next year,” said Coach Caron who remains confident about this spring in Philadelphia. “But still skilled because are freshmen have actually all played rugby before which is somewhat of a rarity to us.”

Two of the players’ Coach Caron is confident will be coming to the CRC are:

John Gerard

John Gerard was recruited to Blacksburg’s Virginia Tech as a sprinter for the school’s track and field team. Although he participated on the school’s NCAA Division I team for a while, he began missing the experience he’d had on past team sports throughout his youth. Gerard’s brother was playing rugby at the University of Oregon at the time and encouraged him to learn a bit more about the sport.

“With team sports like rugby and football, there’s a lot more camaraderie and teamwork and really getting close with the people you play with. You get more of that from rugby than a sport like track,” explained Gerard who is pursuing a degree in finance at the business school.

By the end of his freshmen year, Gerard made the swap to rugby. Unfortunately, soon after he broke his hand playing in a 7s tournament and was out for the rest season. But he persisted and now in his junior year Gerard is the club’s treasurer and was recently voted in as president for next year.

“We definitely did lose a couple weapons last year coming into this season. But everybody’s really coming together now: All the new guys and the previously players that came back are really starting to look like a true 7s program. Everybody is giving it their all every practice, every morning lift that we have. So we’re really coming together. We’ve played well at tournaments,” said Gerard.

Thomas Whitaker

Thomas “Tommy” Whitaker began his collegiate education at a Rhode Island-based institution with an NCAA Division III wrestling team. During the first freshman, preseason practice of the year, Whitaker took the advice of his father who often encouraged him to pick out the biggest guy in the room as a reference point for his skills. He chose someone to partner up with that was two weight classes ahead of him.

“I ended up taking him down and he kind of pushed back. I fell over the top my knee and I felt something kind of pop. So, I stopped and I went to go walk it off. Every step that I took my knee felt weaker and weaker and I was like something is definitely wrong,” recalled Whitaker who tore his meniscus.

It took a month for him to recover and during that time Whitaker reflected on his education and decided to transfer to Virginia Tech. Once again, he went back to wrestling, but this time as a Hokie. He finished the season 6-6 but still wasn’t satisfied and decided to back away from wrestling all together. Whitaker took a year off from organized sports and instead joined a fraternity as a sophomore, but still felt like something was missing.

Last year as a junior rugby caught his eye after a friend joined. Whitaker played in some 15s B-side games and eventually some a-side. In the spring, he made the cut for 7s when it was narrows down from 22 people to 12. However, he was never a game starter until the actual CRC itself.

“7s is definitely my favorite between the two it’s so fast it’s a lot more serious…When I play 15s it just seems a lot more relaxed whereas in 7s you’re always moving around sprinting everywhere. So, if you’re familiar with wrestling it’s like a very short period of time where you just go all out.”

Now as the only senior left on the 7s team, Whitaker took the role of co-captain after only a year on the squad. Coach Caron has been helping him learn more about the sport so Whitaker can feel confident when giving orders to his teammates.

“He’s an all-around player. A good sweeper, really athletic- he’s a wrestling crossover. So, his tackling is one of the best on the team and we look to him to kind of control the game’s speed and be a good strong defensive player,” said Caron.

The team’s last game was April 22 against James Madison University where the Hokies lost 5-10; their next stop is the CRC.

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