It has been quite a spring for the student athletes at Fordham. Women’s basketball, softball and baseball all took home Atlantic 10 titles, while on the club sports side the highly competitive programs for both men’s ice hockey and now men’s sevens rugby have reached not just postseason but competed or will compete for national titles.
Even with the academic year over, Fordham’s amazing spring has continued on on both the baseball diamond and the rugby pitch this weekend, with baseball playing in the NCAA Regionals in Morgantown, West Virginia and men’s rugby making their first-ever appearance in the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships at Talen Energy Stadium just outside Philadelphia. Both teams will be seen on the ESPN family of networks.
While baseball has had quite the history, it is the winningest program in all of the NCAA, rugby is a newbie, despite roots that go back to the days of the Seven Blocks of Granite. Under head coach Andrew Gheraldi, the Rams just missed qualifying for the Penn Mutual CRC two seasons ago, and last year won the Liberty Cup qualifier to make the main field for the first time, entering group play on Saturday morning against the likes of national powers Arizona, St, Mary’s and an always tough fellow Jesuit school in St. Joe’s. The field overall boasts traditional rugby powerhouses like Cal and UCLA and schools that have excelled in rugby like Life University and Kutztown, and close to 30,000 people are expected for the two days at the home of the Philadelphia Union.
All of that hasn’t phased the young Rams, whose veteran players and confident coach seem up to the task. “This has been an amazing experience getting the program to where it is now, and the support we get continues to grow,” said Gheraldi, who is also the Athletic Director at Xavier High School in Manhattan. “We have shown we can play on a regional level, now this will give us the real opportunity to play with some of the elite programs in a growing sport like rugby sevens. It is really an honor to be here.”
On the pitch, Fordham will be led by a host of faces including Kraig Puccia, whose experience off the field has led him to be one of three national finalists for the Penn Mutual “Life of Significance” award. The senior has gone to Bethel, Alaska to learn about issues of drug and alcohol abuse in the local community. In preparation for the visit, he helped raise thousands of dollars in donations to aid programs in the Bethel community to combat drug and alcohol abuse. While in Alaska, Kraig primarily assisted the Tundra Women’s Coalition, which works to protect women in the community from their partners because of alcohol or drug-induced episodes that threaten their safety.
In addition, Fordham has had to overcome the loss of senior leading scorer Maxim Zhitnik, son of former NHL All-Star Alexei Zhitnik, who has missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury and led the Rams to their qualifying success as a junior. The school has said his availability will be a game time decision.
Even without their leading scorer, the Rams remain hopeful as teams prep in Philly on Friday. “Eight of the players here were here last year, we’ve worked hard to balance two a days against exams the last few weeks, but this opportunity doesn’t come along that often so our goal is to really leave it all out there with such a tough draw,” added senior captain Alec Dunivant. “For Fordham just to be here at this stage of our program is amazing, and it’s something we can take away as a great memory for our program and for the school.”
While rugby remains a club sport at Fordham for now, the growth of the program has been remarkable, and to have a Fordham flag flying on a national spotlight on ESPN as the calendar turns to June is amazing, not just for a storied program like baseball, but for a growing one like rugby.
Quite a capper to a special spring at Rose Hill.
Cover image credit: Meral Kathwari