UMD Rugby: The ingredients of a winning team

After three straight Division II National Championships, the UMD Fighting Penguins are used to having a target on their backs as the team to beat. However, it was a long process to get to where they are now.

For senior president Randy Tanaka and senior captains Trace Bolstad and Tim Stefczak, winning championships is all they’ve known while playing rugby at UMD.

“We got here the year that we started winning championships,” Bolstad said. “Before that, there was a long period of time where they didn’t win very many games at all.”

According to Bolstad, it wasn’t until UMD rugby players took it upon themselves to recruit players from high school and around campus that they found the success they were seeking. Now, they are reaping the benefits of their hard work.

This season, the Fighting Penguins have had to quickly adjust to playing under a new head coach. Former coach Jeramy Katchuba stepped down after the 2015 season for family reasons and hand-picked new coach Dean Walsh. Walsh is from Hamilton, New Zealand. He has over 30 years of rugby playing experience.

Even for the veteran players, the switch to a new coach was a pretty easy adjustment, especially knowing that their former coach was the one who selected him.

“It’s a bit of a different coaching style, but the man definitely has the track record and knows what he’s doing,” Stefczak said.

Walsh said that he is looking forward to what this season has in store and likes the talent and ability of this year’s team.

“I’m pretty excited, actually,” Walsh said. “I didn’t know what to expect when I came into it. But when I took over and started doing two-a-days and saw their talent and work ethic, it was a pretty exciting thing for me as a coach.”

Both coach Walsh and the rugby captains explained the team’s recent dominance in very similar ways.

“It’s definitely their work ethic and their camaraderie,” Walsh said. “With rugby, you can have the best athletes but not have a very good relationship with each other. The camaraderie within the team, how much they care about each other and how hard they push each other are vital ingredients to their success.”

“I would say camaraderie and team unity,” Bolstad said. “The way we play as a team really separates us from everyone else.”

The Fighting Penguins have five games this regular season and will play five to six playoff games depending on seeding. They hope to travel to South Carolina where the Final Four tournament will be held. Besides making it to the tourney and winning a fourth consecutive national championship, the team also wants to get more involved in the community.

“We’re trying to get out to the youth in Duluth and Superior and get fundraising through different sponsorships from businesses around the area,” Tanaka said.

The thing that Walsh most appreciates about this team is their respect for one another.

“They are super respectful on and off the field, which is a big part for me,” Walsh said. “They get to work and treat everyone as equals.”

Originally published with the UMD Statesman on October 18, 2016:

http://www.theumdstatesman.com/sports-and-outdoors/2016/11/15/umd-rugby-the-ingredients-of-a-winning-team?rq=Kevin%20Ott