Who said the Final Four was over? After besting the University of the Pacific and top-seeded Humboldt State University at a Pacific regional tournament, MiraCosta College’s rugby club — playing its inaugural competitive season in a collegiate conference — won a national championship.
On April 21, MiraCosta took on Wayne State College in a National Small College Rugby Organization semifinal in Cheswick, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. With a 38-10 win, the MiraCosta Spartans advanced to the April 22 final against John Carroll University, which Mira Costa won, 56-5.
MiraCosta completed the 2018 season without a defeat in Division III of the Gold Coast Conference, a conference that includes the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Occidental College, Pepperdine University, Cal Poly Pomona, Whittier College and Westmont College, all of which are four-year schools.
“It’s really a great story about a diverse group of young men coming together because of a desire to play rugby at a competitive level, who are now at the brink of winning a national championship,” said MiraCosta College Athletic Director Patrick Conahan.
The story involves more than rugby. It’s also about redemption.
The program was spearheaded by a group of former alternative high school students and Keli Ross-Ma’u, who has started rugby programs or coached at Mission Vista, Alta Vista and Murray high schools, in addition to the Tri City Thunder club team. Both Alta Vista and Murray are continuation high schools and, Ross-Ma’u said, “Rugby is the succor that has kept many students on campus.”
“Rugby helped change their lives,” Ross-Ma’u said. Problem was, when they graduated high school, competitive rugby was no longer an option. At least not until students from Alta Vista High School approached Ross-Ma’u when he was working at MiraCosta as a grant-funded student services specialist in the Student Equity Department and pitched the idea of starting a non-sanctioned rugby squad. The opportunity was too good to pass up.
“A lot of these kids, they love rugby, but in order to play rugby at MiraCosta, they have to be in school,” Ross-Ma’u said. “Once you’re in school, you see what the college can offer, and you start looking at your options. And those options can mean transferring to a four-year university. It’s a pipeline from high school to MiraCosta to a four-year university.”
In fact, one player is transferring to Humboldt State. Another is transferring to Sacramento State. A player on the women’s team is going to West Point.
“It’s like a movie, and it’s only getting better,” Ross-Ma’u said. The rugby club began playing “friendlies” or exhibitions in 2017. But because MiraCosta is one of only a few community colleges in Southern California with a club, the squad found itself competing against much larger schools, such as Long Beach State University.
That didn’t matter to students on the field. They just wanted a place to play.
The club is open to all. Forty men and 17 women play on its teams.
“It’s a physical game, no doubt,” said Conahan. “But the camaraderie and fellowship are there. After the game the players are hanging out, breaking bread together. It’s truly a unique sport. It’s very cool. We are proud to offer our students the opportunity to participate in such a great experience.”