ON A STEAMY Memorial Day evening in North Philadelphia, Temple’s rugby sevens team gathers for practice like it has nearly every other night since early March.
School has been out for weeks and while most of the country is relaxing after a long holiday weekend, these young men have chosen to work. On an empty campus in an empty city, this roster of 12 is finally less than a week away from what it has been training for.
Temple is one of 16 college rugby teams that will compete this weekend at PPL Park in the 2012 USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship.
The tournament, which features a seven-on-seven version of rugby, has capitalized on the recent announcement that rugby sevens will be added as an Olympic sport in 2016. The event is in its third year and second at PPL Park.
The field includes teams from all over the country, including defending champion Dartmouth.
Temple captain Chase Haberstroh said the Owls want to put last year’s tournament in their rearview mirror.
"We got spanked," the stocky junior said. "We played a total of four games and we got beat every time pretty bad."
Rugby is a club sport at Temple and one that is still growing. The team isn’t afforded the luxury of scholarships or recruiting. But Halberstroh says that this year, with a new coaching staff and a new approach, they can make some noise come Saturday when they open against Wisconsin at 9:11 a.m.
"All four of our coaches are on the same page this year," he said. "We started training for this a month and a half or 2 months ago and we have been going hard every night. I think it’s going to be a lot different this year."
The 12-player roster was pared down from more than 70, all of whom compete on Temple’s all-inclusive "fifteens" team.
"The first camp [in February] was trying to see whose skill sets stood out a little bit more," said head coach John Sciotto. Initially, the team practiced 2 nights a week, but by March it trained separately 4 nights a week with matches on weekends.
"Quickly, it got whittled down to about 30 guys, then a month later it was down to 20. Then, after a tournament last weekend, we had our team," Sciotto said, adding that the last cuts were especially arduous.
Halberstroh embodies the characteristics of this particular group of athletes — all of whom are here on their own accord and their own dime, including the coaches, who volunteer their time. With the spring semester long over, Halberstroh works a day job in his hometown of Lancaster and commutes nightly for practice.
"It’s something that stands out, what these guys go through," Sciotto said. "They’re running at 5 in the morning, putting together fitness groups and lifting groups. We don’t have a fitness guy checking their times — they’re doing it on their own time."
But why? Halberstroh says it’s more than just this weekend’s championship.
"It’s the brotherhood," he said. "Our team is really tight — there are no cliques within it. We do this for each other — we don’t want to let each other down. I think it is what motivates us."
Halberstroh said he left last year’s event embarrassed. He knows that some of the top teams probably think Temple only gets in because it is local, but he and his teammates are determined to show they belong.
"In our eyes, we’re the underdog of the tournament," he said. "People might think we shouldn’t be in it, but we’ve been really busting our butts out here to make sure we earn our spot there this year."