How utterly preposterous it now seems that uncertainty dogged the IUP club rugby team at the start of the season, given where it ended.
Who could have predicted that the Tooters, a year removed from a .500 record, would win their opener by more than a hundred points and just keep on rolling, all the way to the USA Rugby Division II final four?
Not even Nostradamus could have seen that coming.
"We were in a new league this year so we didn't really know what to expect," said IUP Rugby Club president Bryan Castrogiovanni, a junior who lines up at the props position for the Tooters. "Our first game was against Marshall University and we ended up winning 105-3. We scored more points that week than anyone in the country. That's when we first realized that we could do something."
Something epic, in fact. IUP would lead the nation in scoring margin en route to a 9-1 season that featured a Great Lakes Conference championship and two victories in the national tournament, a Brobdingnagian leap forward for a program that finished 5-5 the year before. Not even head coach James "Chip" Lenzi was convinced such a dramatic turnaround was within the realm of possibility when he took over in the fall.
Despite the Tooters' strong first half, their title run came to an end in the USA Rugby Division II semifinals against the University of Minnesota Duluth. [Photo: Jim Harris]
"I've been involved enough in upper-level rugby to know what they were up against-and they weren't ready when I took over," said Lenzi, who played four years of rugby at IUP before graduating in 1989 and had last coached his alma mater in 2010. "But they had a lot of kids with experience who understood the game, and they had the desire and the commitment."
Otherwise, Lenzi wouldn't have agreed to return.
"I drive two hours to practice each way," said Lenzi, who resides in the Beaver County community of Freedom. "I wouldn't do that if the kids weren't committed to playing at a high level and being coachable and learning the game a little bit better and keeping their focus. I drove that distance because I thought this team had the base to make the playoffs and go far."
IUP's mauling of Marshall served as a springboard for one of the best seasons in program history. The Tooters followed with a 53-7 rout of Kent State, won 34-24 at Grand Valley State, picked up a forfeit victory over Ferris State, and then annihilated Louisville 81-13 at their South Campus pitch.
"That game was so bad I got pulled at half," said scrum-half Jason Ewing, a May graduate. "I'm usually field captain, so I don't get pulled from games very often. It was a great feeling to beat a team like that, because I know Louisville gives its players scholarship money, which is something that we definitely don't get."
Like most IUP club sports teams, the Tooters receive some funding from the Student Cooperative Association and operate with a shoestring budget. Financial concerns are as constant as a heartbeat.
"Sometimes we worry about how we're going to be able to get to games," said Castrogiovanni, who makes the team's travel arrangements. "And we've stayed in some $40-a-night hotels that were a little shady."
But the Tooters forge on. Fact is, they seem to thrive in the face of adversity, on and off the field. Case in point, their October 27 showdown for the GLC Southern Division crown versus unbeaten Xavier in Cincinnati. The Musketeers shut down IUP's high-octane attack early and led 13-0 with halftime approaching. Then, like Frankenstein's monster, the Tooters roused to life with a jolt and went on a rampage.
"I think it was Harry Perry, a sophomore fullback, who scored our first try in that game, just before half," Ewing said. "Scored it off to the sideline. We were lucky and made the conversion from the sideline, which sparked everyone. And that was it. The rest of the points went to us." Final score: 36-13.
The Tooters then wrapped up the fall segment of their schedule by whipping Northern Division champion Grand Valley State 34-13 at Findlay, Ohio, to win the conference title. An invitation to the 16-team USA Rugby Division II tournament ensued.
IUP pushed its record to 9-0 with a pair of national playoff wins the weekend of April 27-28 in suburban Pittsburgh before a raucous gathering of Tooters rooters, who witnessed a 32-12 first-round victory over Providence and a 31-22 quarterfinal victory over Colgate.
"We had an incredible amount of fan support from friends at school, family members-even the women's rugby team came down and supported us," Castrogiovanni said. "When we won those games, it was just phenomenal, the feeling of everyone cheering for us and everything. It was great to have that many fans there."
The win over Colgate punched IUP's ticket to Bowling Green, Ohio, site of the final four. The Tooters' giddy joyride through the tournament finally ended in the semifinals on May 11, when the University of Minnesota Duluth-which had crushed top-seeded Wisconsin-Whitewater 43-17 two weeks before-put on a second-half clinic to hand IUP its first defeat, 59-15.
"I think it was 26-15 at half, so we were only down 11 points," Ewing said. "If you watch the last 10 minutes of the half -- I have the game film -- that's when we score most of our points, and the momentum has just changed. It completely shifted in the last 10 minutes. If you only saw the first 40 minutes, you would have thought we were going to come back and win. You'd have put money on it."
But the Fighting Penguins made the necessary adjustments in the second half to blunt IUP's momentum, then pulled steadily away to end the Tooters' title run. Yet there was no denying IUP had left its mark during a storybook 2012-13 season. Of 142 Division II programs, the unheralded, underfunded Tooters eclipsed 138.
Few would have dared predict such a feat back in September, when uncertainty reigned. IUP's rise to national prominence gave the Tooters reason to celebrate even in the wake of the Minnesota Duluth defeat.
"The guys were disappointed after that game, but they weren't totally dejected because they realized what they had accomplished this season," Lenzi said. "This was a great life experience for the whole team. To go that far, it's something that these guys will have for the rest of their lives, something they'll remember forever."
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Ten alumni were honored with 2013 Distinguished Alumni Awards at an April gala.
Nurse Eva Jane Savel Bolents treated survivors of the most tragic naval event of World War II
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