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Black and Blue Rugby

By Joseph Terry The Daily Inter Lake

About 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, in the Ohio River town of Wheeling, West Virginia, there is a small piece of Kalispell. There four former athletes from the Valley decided to forgo athletic offers in state to take a chance on Division I rugby. It's a growing option for athletes in the Valley and around Montana, as programs out east are beginning to trove the Treasure State for its hidden talent. Wheeling Jesuit University began playing rugby just three years ago, and made its first mission to upgrade the talent on its roster. Thanks to connections to the Kalispell Black and Blue rugby program, one of the first recruiting stops for the Cardinals was in northwest Montana. The Black and Blue, then fresh off a state championship, was loaded with talent, touting state championship wrestlers and Division I football recruits across its roster. The two that caught the eye of the Cardinals were all-state wrestlers Dawson Day and Nick Iavicoli. Day, a leader on the team at scrum half, was the first to join with Iavicoli signing on later in the summer of 2013. Together, the two found their way through the normal trials and tribulations of starting college while on a campus 2,000 miles from home. "The first semester was tough, definitely being away from my family and whatnot," Iavicoli said. ”Most of our friends stayed in-state for school. We always got pictures and all these things. We talked to them about hanging out with all our old buddies from high school. Once we started making good friends here and really getting into rugby, it kind of all went away for awhile." The experience outside of the region helped grow the pair more than on the field of play. "It's indescribable ... It's in a cool area. I've been able to travel all around and see a lot of big cities," Iavicoli said. "I have kids on my team from Africa, Fiji, Australia, all around. That's been really cool. I've made a lot of friends from a lot of different countries. "That's been one of the greatest benefits to coming out here. It's really opened my eyes to see what else is going on in the world and see how other people have grown up. There's a lot of other people just like me that did the same things we did growing up overseas." The pair found its way fast enough, as the Cardinals finished their first season in Division 1-A at 2-5 overall. While stationed in the Eastern time zone, they helped point out more talent back on their hometown club. This summer, WJU signed two more from the Black and Blue. Glacier's all-state safety Orie Mann and all-conference defensive lineman Brendan Windauer brought some power to the Kalispell rugby program last season, leading the Black and Blue to a runner-up finish. Already on the radar from the recruitment of Day and Iavicoli, the two were brought into Wheeling after camp and in their few weeks of work, they've already made an impression on the coaches. With four Kalispell players on the team, there's now as many Montana players in Wheeling as there are from the more populated areas of Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. That has helped ease the questions for some teammates that may be hard-pressed to point out Kalispell on a map. "Some people still thought we rode horses to school," Iavicoli joked. "'How close is your nearest neighbor?' and all that stuff. "It's always nice to have guys that know where you're from and have been where you're from, experienced everything you've experienced and grew up where you did. Being able to relate to them, or if you're feeling a little homesick, being able to talk to them about places you'd hang out." The two sophomores have helped smooth the transition for their Montana teammates, and are hoping to grow the culture of Montana rugby at the Division I level. Recruiters are starting to take notice of the Treasure State, with top programs coming to Montana to find talent. "What we stick out for the most is our tackling," Mann said of what the Montana kinds have brought as far as style of play. "That's the reason we got noticed, [along with] our aggressiveness and passing." Life University in Marietta, Georgia, currently ranked second in the nation, has six Montana players on its team from Frenchtown and Big Sky high schools. Along with Reece Erickson, now at No. 7 Cal Poly, the Black and Blue has sent five athletes to Division I rugby in the last two years. Wheeling Jesuit is ranked No. 16 in the nation. "There's more diversity coming out from our coast now," Iavicoli said. "We're bringing more of the Montana side to this East coast team." There's hope even more talent may flow out east from the burdgeoning pipeline from Kalispell to Wheeling, West Virginia. "I'm betting they'll recruit more out of Montana," Mann said. "There's going to be more recruits coming out of the Black and Blue I'm sure. There's some talented sons of guns on that team." For a fledgling sport in the state, the Big Sky is starting to have a big impact on the world of college rugby. And as a fast growing option for college-bound athletes, rugby is starting to have a big impact on Montana.

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