‘The Sport We Love’ Screaming Minks rugby, the oldest sports club at W&L, this year capped a season of hard work and camaraderie with a trip to the national championship.
Washington and Lee University’s rugby club, the Screaming Minks, played in the national championship game on April 28, finishing second overall for the season in the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO).
This is the team’s best performance ever in NSCRO, which is the most prestigious tournament for rugby teams in small colleges. It’s also a big accomplishment for a club sport that doesn’t have as many resources as varsity teams at W&L. Members of the university’s rugby club are dedicated to practicing on a volunteer basis and raising funds on their own to keep the club running.
“Going to nationals is a goal that our team has been working toward since before I was a freshman,” said Spencer Alascio ’19, captain of the team. “When we got there, all the hard stuff was done and we just had fun and played the sport we love against competitive teams.”
The Screaming Minks is the oldest club sport at W&L, having been formed in the mid-1960s by a few law and undergraduate students. It is open to students with experience playing rugby in high school and students without rugby experience at all. The team has two seasons, from August-November and February-April.
Some members of the team have other sports experience and were attracted to the rugby team after visiting the team practice. For example, Alascio played baseball in high school but decided to try rugby during Spring Term of his first year.
“I instantly felt motivated,” Alascio said. “Once I came here, I knew that instead of baseball, what I wanted to do was play rugby. I went to one practice and have been going ever since.”
Beyond practices and games, the rugby team fosters friendship. Kyle Hallman ’20, president of the club, said he enjoys being on the team with guys who “like to be down and dirty and want the same thing at the end of the day.” Ben Soullier ’19 added that team members love to hang out with each other outside of practice.
Instead of forming a closed social circle, the rugby team welcomes members from all over campus.
“We don’t care about the group of people you hung out with before you joined the rugby team,” Alascio said. “The only thing that really matters to us is that you come out and you’re willing to hit and tackle. Just have fun while you’re here.”
Although women are not allowed to play on men’s teams in NSCRO, and W&L does not have a women’s rugby team, some W&L women have been able to practice with the Screaming Minks. They, too, have had a valuable experience with the team.
“The choice I made to start playing rugby has been the single greatest decision I’ve made in college,” said Juliana Lima ’20. “The guys on the team are some of my favorite people on campus. From my very first practice, they were all incredibly supportive and accepting. The games that I was kicked out of or not allowed to play in simply because I am a female, it seemed some of them were angrier about the situation than I was.”
In addition to W&L students, the team includes students from nearby Southern Virginia University.
“SVU coming to play with us has been a bonus,” Alascio said. “It is a good chance to meet and talk with athletes from a different school who are all very different people with different views of life than people at Washington and Lee. It’s been a really positive influence.”
The team currently has three volunteer coaches, including Tom Lovell ’91, senior associate director of Alumni Engagement at W&L. Lovell played rugby at W&L from 1987 to 1991, when he was a student. He volunteered to coach the team in 2000, when he became an employee of W&L. Prior to that, upperclassmen coached younger students during practices.
Lovell said he is happy to see that the team has flourished during recent years, especially after the creation of NSCRO in 2007.
“We’ve done extremely well in the last five years,” he said. “The W&L rugby team has won the state tournament and advanced to regionals five years in a row, and it has made it to the Final Four of NSCRO two of those five years.”
Encouraged by Lovell, local business owner John Welsh became a coach for the rugby club in 2008. Welsh played rugby during his four years as a student at Radford University, and he said he has enjoyed coaching the W&L rugby team so far.
“It is nice to meet and encourage these young men who enjoy being a part of the rugby sport,” Welsh said. “Being around these guys with unique culture, you can feel the energy of them.”
Welsh said he is glad to see that the club not only grows itself, but also helps increase interest in rugby throughout the Rockbridge area. Students at Southern Virginia University plan to form their own team in the coming season.
As a club sport, the rugby team is responsible for raising funds to keep the club running. Ray Ellington, assistant director of campus recreation, who oversees club sports, is glad to see the rugby team’s achievements in both games and fundraising.
“Everyone here is proud of their success,” Ellington said. “Those guys are working hard on their practices and doing great in the games. In the meantime, they did such a great job raising their own funds from parents and alumni, which is impressive.”
Parents are the biggest donors to the team. Jeff Alascio, Spencer’s father, is one parent who has contributed to the fund.
“Washington and Lee is a very difficult and challenging institution academically,” he said. “The ability to create a release of energy and team building through club rugby is very beneficial. Spencer has had an exceptional experience, and he’s very close to all the players there.”
Besides financial donations, parents also come to games and cheer for the team, which provides emotional support for players. That support was important as the team advanced to the national championship game this spring in Loudonville, New York. Unfortunately, they were felled by a 30-21 loss to Azusa Pacific University in the final game.
After doing so well this year, the rugby team is working hard to prepare for the next season. Lovell said the team did international tours in 2006 and 2009, and he hopes to do one in 2020. Besides working to be more successful on the field, the club aims to become a more integrated part of the university and have more of a presence on campus.
“I feel good about next year’s season due to the close-knit nature that the team currently possesses,” Hallman said. “We hope to build on the strong culture developed this year and continue to carry on the strong tradition of Minks Rugby.”