There is no easy way to turn an undercard athletic program with little success into a collegiate powerhouse, especially when that team is club rugby, which gains little to no attention from the school itself. But for Marist rugby’s head coach James Kimberly, this was a David versus Goliath type challenge, and he was eager to cast the first stone.
“When I came here in 2017, for lack of a better term, the program was a mess,” Kimberly said. “There were part-time coaches, not enough commitment from the players, and the teams that we would play every season were better than us.”
Fast forward three years later, where newly recruited Marist College rugby athlete Federico Gubana stood at midfield as the rain poured down on his head. Marist College just took a heartbreaking loss to Georgetown University. Their nationals run has come to a close.
It’s bittersweet when you make it to nationals as an underdog and can’t continue the Cinderella run that carried you there. But how do you make that magic last?
Gubana recalls that while the team suffered heartbreak in a loss against Georgetown in the regional finals, they “understood how we got there, and what it’s going to take to get back there.”
During the 2020-21 season, Marist rugby finished the season ranked 14th in the country, and earned a spot in the Tri-State tournament, which is where they compete against the top teams in the conference. There, Marist looked to secure their very first place in the finals, something the program had never done.
Danny Peters, a senior at Marist, has been one of the main anchors of the team and a huge part of their success and team chemistry.
“With new players each season, it’s really important for the upperclassmen to bond with the new players to develop good chemistry,” he said. “I’d say we all adapted perfectly throughout the season, especially since we haven’t played in two years, due to COVID.”
After taking down USMAA (King’s Point), Seton Hall, and Siena in the playoffs, Marist had made their way to the 2021 Tri-State Championship for the first time in their collegiate history. Their matchup: a highly-skilled RPI team.
But the team was confident in each other, and they knew by playing as a unit, they stood a chance. Peters explained that the team was “really confident [they] were going to win, but you never know when you are competing against top-caliber teams.”
Sure enough, Marist stunned RPI, defeating them 47-10 and sending them onward to Nationals.
This wasn’t just a sweet moment for the players, but for a coach who came to this program with visions of this success at the forefront of his mind.
Coach James Kimberly has managed the men’s rugby team since 2017, after joining as an assistant in 2016. Kimberly played collegiately at Nichols College in Massachusetts, where he started every season and took his team to the New England Championship and won. Kimberly comes from winning organizations, so when he got the job offer in 2017, he knew he was going to have to build chemistry and bring a winning mentality to a struggling collegiate program.
Before his enlistment as head coach, Kimberly witnessed a 2016 Marist rugby team finish the season 1-4. In 2017, when the job became Kimberly’s, Marist made it to the semifinals of the Tri-State Tournament. They reached the semifinals four years in a row, before handing RPI a loss in the finals.
“With the amount of returning players we received over the years, and the commitment and chemistry growing each year between the coaches and players,” Kimberly told me. “I could sense that this program was headed in the right direction.”
Kimberly also made groundbreaking moves in recruiting, as he made a few key acquisitions to the team, the biggest being no other than Federico Gubana. The Italian-born player was contacted by Coach Kimberly before the start of last season, and after long discussions with his agent, Gubana came overseas to join Marist College.
“The best way I can describe it,” Kimberly said giddily, “Is like recruiting the top five-star recruit at quarterback for football, let’s say. And now, he’s with us.”
Gubana made waves quickly. He dominated the pitch and showed the extent of his professionalism, as this was “the first time [he] ever played rugby in the United States.” But Gubana did it with grace.
Besides Gubana, some other players, like Nate Tucker, a first-year senior player, who was invited to play in Houston, Texas for the Tri-State Viking All-Star team. Gubana and Tucker joined six other Red Foxes in Houston.
Kimberly was particularly happy about this achievement, as “Marist had by far sent the most athletes to Houston, and that’s something to be super proud of. It’s the type of recognition the players look for, and they deserved it.”
Tucker, who had never even stepped foot out on a rugby pitch, found himself at the forefront of the national team, somewhere he had not envisioned himself a year prior. But this was a testament to the hard work, chemistry, and dedication the team had put forward. They didn’t get this far on luck.
This team suffered from the pandemic like everyone else, but in Kimberly’s eyes, their biggest test was the intangibles, the things between the lines that not everyone looks for.
“We were playing up at Kings Point in the rain, on a field designed for their style of play, and we were missing a few players from injury and COVID-19, the biggest loss being Federico.”
But in that game, Marist took USMMA by surprise and dominated the game, ultimately beating out a very talented team.
“From that point I knew, if we could beat nationally ranked teams like William-Paterson or USMMA without some of our top guys like Federico, then everything else would just fall into place when he came back.”
And sure enough, things did fall into place. Marist went on to win the Tri-State Tournament and go on to reach nationals and win a game in the there. Something no Marist rugby team has ever done before.
Team captain John Schneider feels that the loss in Nationals doesn’t mean the end of Marist rugby’s run of success. In his eyes, it will be just the opposite.
“Already, the success of this team has allowed for more people to be interested in rugby and want to join our club. People want to win and doing so at this level, will surely bring more publicity and popularity to our sport.”
From last year’s success, Marist rugby plans to carry that momentum onto this season, as they have big goals, and believe that no one is going to stop them from doing so. On top of eight Marist College athletes being named to the All-Star team in Houston, both coaches got to make the journey with them. And if that wasn’t enough, four of Marist College men’s rugby roster made the Goff Rugby top 150 Division II players list.
“I expect to be coaching a top-15 team this year,” Coach Kimberly said to me in a way where you can’t help but smile. “I have really high hopes for this season, and I know the players do too. It’s just about execution now.”
Edited by Jonathan Kinane
Photo from Marist Rugby Instagram