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State of Origin

Former club sport attempts a return to UTEP

Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012

Updated: Friday, May 17, 2013 13:05

Rugby

Photos by Bob Corral / The Prospector

UTEP Athletics and rugby are no strangers to each other and may become acquainted again as there have been talks of bringing back the sport. Leading the negotiations is Doug Park, the current director of El Paso Area Rugby Union and a UTEP graduate.

According to Park, a new club rugby team may take its residence at UTEP this coming fall, where they will be on a one-year probation before competing at the division-1 level as all new sports must abide by.

Park said he has “plenty” of players for a full team, adding that he wants 30-35 players ideally, but 25 is all that is required.

If the team passes probation and becomes a full squad, it will be just another chapter in a long history of UTEP’s rugby history.

“It goes all the way back to 1974 when I came here from New Zealand. That’s when we started the team,” Park said. “We were ranked in the top 10 in the nation in the collegiate side.”

The inaugural team got its start during a time when Park was nowhere near the sport, but was still using his athleticism to his advantage—as a bouncer.

“I was working for a place below Mesa Street Bar and Grill,” Park said. “I was wearing my New Zealand rugby t-shirt and a bunch of guys came in the bar and said, ‘hey, you play rugby?’ and I said yes, but I didn’t expect rugby to be here. They said, ‘well come out, we’re starting a team.’ So I went out. They were horrible.”

Despite the rough beginning, Park said the team managed to turn itself around and won three tournaments in 1974. When the members of the team graduated from UTEP in 1978, they decided to start the Scorpions. The Miners would have a rugby team on and off during the mid 1980s and mid ‘90s. The feeder for those teams was UTEP’s physical education program, which began to play the sport so students could try something different.

The Scorpions still exist and are currently in the Rio Grande Rugby Union, where they play teams from Albuquerque, Santa Fe and other New Mexico squads. The El Paso rugby association is also looking to build an adult team to feed into the Scorpions.

Park thinks now would be a great time to bring rugby to the school again because of the successful past and the talent from the city.

“We have such a strong high school program now that we find it necessary to get the UTEP team going again,” Park said. “The collegiate program is very strong in the United States. In the local area, schools like New Mexico State, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Tech all have a team, and we’ve been wanting to get in that competition.”

Park is trying to build the program from the ground up, starting with local high schools. Currently, the rugby association plays three games every Friday night at Cohen Stadium with teams from the Westside Crusaders, the Eastside Rebels and the Northeast Spartans. There is also a team with players only from Cathedral and Del Valle High School (the Bluedevils). The high school league has been around for five years.

One Franklin High School student and wing for the Crusaders, Alan Martinez, is expected to enroll at UTEP next year, hoping to major in architecture.

“I think (bringing rugby back) would be extremely important,” Martinez said. “We have a lot of kids right now going to UTEP (on the Crusaders) who are probably looking forward to playing rugby next year. A lot of us have been asking about it, since we’ll be going to UTEP.”

Martinez said that if the Miners do get a team together, the team he’d look forward to playing the most would be NMSU, UTEP’s rival in all of their other athletic sports.

The Crusaders, who practice at Thorn Park on the Westside, are not just comprised of high school players, but UTEP students and even UTEP alumni. Among the alumni players is open-side flanker Anthony DiNapoli, who played for the Miners in 1992. That roster was on the collegiate-select side, when UTEP was a part of the Western Athletic Conference. He was a member of the All-American team.

“(Rugby) is a much needed thing because if you go to all the top universities, they all have rugby teams and why don’t we?” DiNapoli said. “It’s going to bring more students to the school, so recruiting for new out-of-state students would be great. It would also help with out-of-state tuition, increase revenue and bring more people to El Paso.”

DiNapoli mentioned that the team he played for had some sports celebrity ties.

“(Pittsburgh Steeler safety) Troy Polumalu’s brother played at UTEP as a fullback for us. He also played with us on the Scorpions,” DiNapoli said.

UTEP alumnus Mike Loya, who recently donated $10 million to the university and had the Academic Services Building renamed after him, also played rugby as a Miner from 1975-78.

Park is not only looking to start a competitive rugby team, he has also expressed interest in starting an intramural co-ed touch team. He said that it would give everyone a chance to play the sport, as that form of the game is popular in rugby nations such as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

Anyone interested in joining the Scorpions or high school leagues can visit the association’s main website at www.elparu.info. They can also contact Park at the league’s office phone at 833-1322.

Rusty Burns may be reached at prospector@utep.edu.

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