Road to Madison: Home-field advantage

Road to Madison: Home-field advantage

BOULDER, Colo. – Since 2008, Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo., has played host to the USA Rugby Club National Championship. This year, Madison, Wisc., will welcome 10 men’s and women’s rugby clubs to historic Breese Stevens Field May 31 and June 1, though two of the 10 will hope for home-field advantage.

Wisconsin Rugby Club’s men’s Division II team has reached the National Championship Final in each of the past two seasons. In 2012, a 37-26 loss to Rocky Gorge sent WRC back home empty-handed.

WRC returned to Glendale in 2013 and won it all with a big, 60-27 win against Wilmington (Del.), helped by an MVP performance from Max Zukowski.

Each player and member of the WRC coaching staff highlighted the work of the club to reach that stage in consecutive years. Zukowski, 30, showed what the DII National Championship meant to him and his club in the Final and post-match interviews.

Zukowski has stepped away from the field – momentarily, at least – to focus on his duties as club president, which saw Breese Stevens Field named host for this year’s National Championships.

“To be honest, I don’t know if we would’ve been presented this opportunity if I were still playing,” he said. “I just wouldn’t have been as eager as I was to go after this.”

WRC has its own complex with two fields and initially hoped to host a regional qualifier, but the opportunity to host the Finals was something the club wanted to pursue.

Opened in 1926, Breese Stevens Field has held sporting events of all kinds, from baseball to soccer to, yes, rugby. WRC, founded in 1962, held most of its matches in Madison throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.

“That was when Breese got to be sixty years old or so, and they didn’t have the money to really keep it up or do a remodel of it,” Zukowski said. “Rugby is obviously an aggressive sport; the turf management became very key for the facility.

“It’s an important facility for the city of Madison. Throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, that was where every single event took place. They played baseball there, all the local high school football teams played there, so it has a really huge history within the city.”

As the facility aged, more and more schools built their own stadiums for football games. Breese Stevens Field is now officially owned by the City of Madison parks department and has been soccer-specific in recent years, holding regional and state championship soccer events.

The 2014 USA Rugby National Club Championships will be the first rugby event to be held at Breese Stevens Field since 1984, and should draw one of the biggest crowds the stadium has seen in recent memory.

“That’s why the city of Madison is so excited about this opportunity, because you really cap out your interest with some of the other, smaller events,” Zukowski said. “Much like Glendale, we own our own facility, as well, which is about eight miles outside of town.

“It’s not really far, but that’s where we host the state high school championships. We have an amazing turnout for that event. We’re kind of bringing that along with us to Breese, and the attendance that we can bring there is why it’s been such a great partnership with the City of Madison.”

In 2007, the City of Madison began major renovations of Breese Stevens Field to ensure the stadium’s structural issues were addressed, as well as ADA code improvements. A press box was built in 2011, but the biggest change to the historic venue will be the addition of artificial turf.

“You see the value in [hosting the National Championship here],” Zukowski said. “They put a lot of money into renovating Breese. They’re putting in the field turf after the rugby event, so it’s going to be like the last hoorah for the grass.

“[Breese is] unique in that it doesn’t really have these outside school groups that are kind of trying to maintain control of it, in some respect. That’s the cool relationship we’ve been able to cultivate so far with the changing over into turf and such. It’s going to allow groups like us, people who have a commitment to the city of Madison and Wisconsin, to bring groups to Madison who will be able to be a focal group once the major concern with the grass has subsided.”

The 2012 Division II National Club Championship was seen as the “last hoorah” for a few players who did not return to the team during its championship run in 2013. At least one of those players is back for another chance at hardware, though Zukowski credits the return to Breese Stevens Field.

“We have a prop who was involved in 2012 who’s now back, who probably wouldn’t have been involved if we had to go to Pittsburgh or go to Denver of another place for the championship,” he said.

WRC is not just excited about hosting the National Championship. The fact both its men’s and women’s teams could be playing at home on the national stage is driving both to get to their respective Finals.

The turnover from WRC’s 2013 championship team was seen on the field – with Zukowski’s “retirement” and other players hanging up the boots – and off, as the coaching staff has been through some changes.

Hear Zukowski talk about “retiring” from playing rugby:

Adam Thimmig, assistant coach of the 2012-13 Division II team and head coach of the Division IV team during the same year, has moved into the head coach role for the 2013-14 season. Tim Leslie, who has played with the club since 2003, retired last June following the National Championship and has since been named director of rugby at the club.

Zukowski’s team in 2012 had tasted glory but fell just short, spurring WRC on to win the whole thing a year later. This year, with the title of National Champion on their backs, WRC’s players are not content.

“We have too much change still occurring and our coaching staff has new expectations,” Zukowski said. “[Thimmig] is a very regimented guy who has different expectations. You couldn’t really get into the same old, same old we had for two years, and we have these new opportunities to play in front of a home city for a national championship if we do well enough.

“We haven’t been able to allow ourselves to be complacent in any respect, so I’m thankful for that. You certainly could have a little bit of letdown, as would be natural with having so much success of a two-year span.”

WRC compiled an undefeated, 8-0-1 record last fall to top its Midwest Division II group with 41 points. WRC advanced to the Round of 32 with a 31-8 win against St. Paul Jazz Pigs April 12, setting up a playoff date with Eastside Banshees April 26. One of WRC’s eight wins came against the Banshees, who earned 45 points from 10 matches during league play.

With a win against the Banshees and another victory in the Round of 16, WRC will travel to Pittsburgh, Pa., May 17 and 18 for the Quarterfinals and Semifinals. Win or lose, WRC will return to Wisconsin for the National Championship.

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