‘An epic comeback’ – Vatos rally to become National Champs

NMHU Vatos 2015 Team

NSCRO title highlight of club’s 24-year run

By Dave Kavanaugh, Las Vegas Optic

Thursday, June 11, 2015 at 4:35 pm (Updated: June 11, 4:44 pm)

Down nine points with 1:09 to play, the New Mexico Highlands rugby club appeared headed to a national runner-up finish against mighty New England College for the second time in as many years.

That’s second place in the National Small College Rugby Organization’s “sevens” tournament at the greater Philadelphia area’s PPL Park, destination of choice for more than 200 schools across the country. Not too shabby, right?

The Vatos had other ideas.

“We were down 19-10,” recounted Eric Sykes, team captain. “They pressed up so far on us defensively, we knew if we could get a run on them we could score.”

And so they did.

But that left New England still clinging to a 19-17 lead, due to receive a kickoff with time about to expire.

“With six seconds left, me and ‘Missile’ (teammate Jeremy Misailegalu) looked at each other,” Sykes said. “I said ‘Bro, this is what all our training is about.’ It was a perfect kick, and ‘Missile’ caught the ball. I made sure I rucked for him. Then once our fastest guy, Ke’Von Williams, once we got it in his hands, I knew we had it.”

Williams, who once upon a time made plays as a receiver and return specialist for the Highlands football team, found open space and dashed to the corner for the winning try with no time remaining.

“DiAmaal (Holmes) did a good job taking three people with him,” said Williams. “I had no one within 15 yards of me. All I had to do was run.”

Final score: NMHU Vatos 22, New England College Lions 19.

And just like that, the upstart Vatos from faraway Las Vegas, N.M., were national champions.

Of course, it wasn’t “just like that,” at all.

Conceived as the Vegas-Area Touring Side back in 1991 by NMHU engineering professor and longtime rugby aficionado Dick Greene, the Vatos have been a part of the landscape for almost a quarter century.

Though the club has been mostly successful through the years and various affiliations, it has flown largely under the radar, operating on a shoestring budget supplemented by out-of-pocket money from the all-volunteer coaches and the players themselves.

P.J. Trujillo, who played for the Vatos at various times dating to the early days, has coached the team the last couple years. He estimates he’s spent nearly $10,000 in travel, lodging and meals for the team.

As a student club, the Vatos receive some funding from Highlands’ student government and the school itself, but the expenses — roughly $15,000 a year — far exceed that amount.

At any rate, the Vatos have built a tradition of competitiveness from the start, earning Rio Grande Rugby Union titles in the mid-’90s and winning the High Desert Classic multiple times.

In 2013, the club became affiliated with the NSCRO, competing directly with other small colleges and taking on more stringent eligibility rules.

The Vatos rose into the top 10 nationally and began making noise in the postseason. In April they won the Eastern Rockies Division and finished in the final eight of the NSCRO national tournament for standard 15-a-side rugby. The eventual champion? New England College.

In latter days, the Vatos tried their hands at “sevens” rugby, which fields seven from each side. On their first trip to the national “sevens” tourney in 2014, they reached the championship, falling to New England.

The Lions predictably won their division and qualified for this year’s tournament, leading a field of eight teams. The eighth and final addition to the field was NMHU.

A case of nerves
“We knew the competition we were facing,” Sykes said. “We were athletically superior to teams in our half of the bracket. We were familiar with North Florida and New England. We’d also played Wayne State and faced Claremont. We had the knowledge advantage and experience advantage over a lot of those guys.”

While several of the Vatos had been on the national finalist squad of a year earlier, though, the newcomers had a case of nerves once they got to Philly.

“Our first game was the closest,” Sykes said. “We had to make adjustments and changes. It was more of a psychological thing. A lot of guys weren’t accustomed to playing on the big stage, with all these people watching them. They were a little shell-shocked. I told our guys not to be overwhelmed and nervous; just play your game. Once we got through that first one, we got all the jitterbugs out.”

The Vatos rolled through pool play, then won big in the bracket to set up a national championship rematch with the Lions.

While New England was as strong as ever, the Highlands squad wasn’t quite the same as it had been a year prior.

“We’re a lot more knowledgable this time,” Sykes said. “We actually know how to play. Last year our accomplishments were based on our athleticism. This year we took the initiative to really learn the game.”

“We were kind of big-headed (going into the national sevens final in 2014),” Williams said. “Losing to New England got us to settle down and be more humble.”

To go along with that newfound hunger, training was also ramped up. The Vatos enlisted the aid of NMHU assistant track coach Patrick Johnson, who ran them through polymetrics and other exercises.

“It was tough going through it,” Sykes said, “but it paid off.”

“The difference this time was the persistence of the players,” Trujillo said. “They know if they keep the pressure on, good things will happen.”

After the Lions seized a 19-10 lead late in the championship game, even the Vatos’ veterans wondered if they could still pull out a win.

“After New England made that kick to go up nine, we didn’t know if we could catch up,” Williams said. “I told everybody to keep their heads up, that we still had a chance.”

Scoring two clutch tries in the closing 1:09, the Vatos staged what the publication Rugby Today dubbed “an epic comeback.”

Williams, who scored three tries — including a 107-yard scamper and the game-winner — in the final, was named tournament MVP. Three teammates — Misailegalu, Sykes and Celester Asuegue — joined him on the all-tournament team.

“Not many people can say they’ve won a collegiate national championship,” Williams said. “This beats any other accolade, personal or with a team.”

“It was one for the ages. It means more than just winning for our club,” Sykes said. “We just wanted to earn our respect, not only for the school but for the people in town. We want to give them a sport they can lean on. We wanted to win for the town. We will give you everything we’ve got.”

“We want to see that joy. New Mexico is one of the most overlooked states. We want to put it back on the stage.”

Giving teams a goal to shoot for
“Any time you win a championship,” Trujillo said, “it’s huge for the program, for the school, for everyone involved … It ranks right up there, or behind, beating Air Force. It gives future teams a goal to shoot for. Winning one is not easy. Winning again is even more difficult.”

Greene said that with the sport of rugby “exploding in the U.S. on college campuses,” he’s glad the Vatos are “riding that wave” and playing well at an especially opportune time.

Winning the national sevens title, he said, bodes well for the future. “It suggests we are learning the game. We’ve always had athleticism. But now we played smart rugby. We beat some very good teams, very well-trained and well-disciplined. The important thing is that we showed great sportsmanship. We were sort of the crowd favorites. Even the ball boys said we were the nicest guys in the tournament. They were getting the guys’ autographs because they thought they were cool.”

“We were quality sportsmen; they get it. It’s part of the ethos of rugby —you respect your opponent. Between the whistles, you battle. But afterward, you go out and have dinner with them.”
Team will be strong in foreseeable future
Williams, who is also on the short list for the U.S. national team, has exhausted his eligibility and graduated. (DiAmaal Holmes, Misailegalu and Sykes are also considered players to also potentially go further up the ranks.)

But Greene said he thinks the team will remain strong for the foreseeable future, possibly challenging for national titles in both 15s and sevens in 2015-16.

“We have five graduates — most important thing is to graduate — this year of the 23 strong,” Greene said. “With better organization, planning, intelligence, fund raising and skills, we should make a good run at winning both 15 and seven codes. It has never been done. We will see. It is a strange bouncing ball.”

Highlights of the NMHU rugby club’s 24-year run:
• NMHU engineering professor Dick Greene founds the club, which draws athletes from other sports like football, in 1991. The club plays in the Rio Grande Rugby Union.
• Vatos, an acronym for Vegas-Area Touring Side, win the Rio Grande collegiate title for the first time in 1992. They’d win the next three as well.
• Classified in men’s Division 3 rugby, the club wins the Western Rugby Union championship in 2005. They make the finals in 2006, achieving their highest national ranking of No. 8, and 2010.
• In 2013, the club moves to affiliation with the National Small College Rugby Organization. Vatos rank ninth their first season in NSCRO.
• In 2014, the Vatos make it to their first-ever national sevens tournament, losing to New England in the final.
• In 2015, the club achieves its highest ranking to date, No. 3, and reaches the NSCRO Sweet 16 after winning the Eastern Rockies and Frontier League.
• Later in the spring, the Vatos return to the national sevens tourney, rallying for a wild 22-19 comeback against defending champion New England in the final. The 12-man roster includes Celester Asuega, Juan Bravo, Jose Cervantes, Rydell Curtis, Ponepate Faleofa, Raymond Henley, DiAmaal Holmes, Anthony Mathews, Jeremy Misailegalu, Eric Sykes, Zachary Tapia and Ke’Von Williams.

©  2015 Las Vegas Optic, reprinted with permission.