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Vatos rugby turns 20

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By Dave Kavanaugh

In the late winter of 1992, as the snow and ice began to melt in northern New Mexico, a fresh new idea was beginning to bud on the campus of New Mexico Highlands University.

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Well, it was fresh and new to the community, anyway.

NMHU engineering professor E.R. “Dick” Greene had just come onto campus, and he brought his favorite sport with him. He’d been playing it since the early 1970s, when he was a student at Rice University in Houston, and though it was known across the globe, it had yet to make much of a splash in northern New Mexico. Still, Greene was determined to share.

Twenty years — and many victories and a few championships later — the Vatos are still playing rugby with the best of ‘em. And while the sport remains isolated to the club level in the region, rugby has carved out a niche of devoted followers in Las Vegas and New Mexico.

“It’s never been big because of the big three,” Greene said, referring to America’s favored sports, football, basketball and baseball. “But it’s a lifelong sport, and it’s something you can play anywhere in the world.”

Greene took up rugby himself because he liked its emphasis on fitness, sportsmanship and teamwork — and because of practical considerations.

“When you’re slow and short and not too big, there’s not a lot of options,” he quipped, before going on to note that rugby has major demands physically and mentally. “Three-hundred pound linemen don’t tend to do well in rugby,” he said. “You take a 185-pound guy, who’s fit and tough, and he’ll do well.”

The initial challenge in launching club rugby at NMHU was getting it off the ground with little or no outside financial support — and then passing along that sense of responsibility to his players.

“We support ourselves — without taxpayer dollars,” Greene said, “and with independence comes responsibility. You don’t have trainers, you don’t have people to pick up after you, to feed you, to house you, to bathe you.”

The second big challenge was teaching the game itself — in particular, its non–stop nature in comparison to the stop-start tempo of sports like football.

“In rugby it never stops,” Greene said. “Just getting the continuity was the second-hardest thing. It’s not conducive to showboating (either). Fortunately I was blessed with some good athletes. And the guys who stuck kept playing, and they’re still playing. They’ve embraced it as a lifelong sport.”

Those early Vatos squads featured a number of guys who were playing football and looking for an offseason activity or who had exhausted their college eligibility and wanted to stay active. The same holds true today, although now there are a number of wrestlers and a few basketball players along with the gridiron alumni.

Predictably, the Vatos — simultaneously an acronym for “Vegas-Area Touring Side” and a Chicano term for “dudes” — had a slow start. Not so predictably, they quickly got better, turning into one of the Western region’s better college programs.

“First season we were 0-11,” Greene recalled. “Next season we were 11-0, I think.”

The Vatos went on to capture their union title and the Western regional out of 300 teams. “We play way above our demographics,” Greene said.

“(Opponents) have to look at a map to see where we’re from. But they remember it.”

“We’ve been remarkably successful for a small school, and now we have a reputation.”

The key, Greene said, is continuing to focus on playing at a high skill level and keeping expectations high — on the field and in the classroom. The Vatos graduate above 70 percent, which he said is “really important to us ... We’re really proud of that.”

“Highlands kids are just sort of thirsty for success. I don’t care if it’s rugby ... or high-level math.”

“Rugby is a metaphor for life,” he said. “It’s about playing fair and working hard.”

Vatos Rugby
2011-12 Schedule

Aug. 23  Fall training begins
Sept. 4   at Santa Fe 10s, 9 a.m., Santa Fe
Sept. 10  Colorado College, TBA, Perkins Stadium
Sept. 17  at Colorado Mines, TBA, Golden, Colo.
Sept. 24  El Paso, TBA, Perkins Stadium
Oct. 1  at Albuquerque Aardvarks, TBA, Albuquerque
Oct. 8  Las Cruces, TBA, Perkins Stadium
Oct. 15  at High Desert Classic, 9 a.m., Albuquerque
Oct. 16  at High Desert Classic, 9 a.m., Albuquerque
Oct. 29  at Clovis, TBA, Clovis

Feb. 14  Spring training begins
March 3  at Colorado College, TBA, Colorado Springs
March 10  at St. Pat’s tourney, El Paso, Texas
March 24  Western State College, TBA, Perkins Stadium
March 31  Albuquerque Brujos, TBA, Perkins Stadium
April 7  at Las Cruces, TBA, Las Cruces
April 14  Clovis, TBA, Perkins Stadium
April 21  Santa Fe, TBA, Perkins Stadium

May 5  Western Union playoffs begin, TBD*
May 19  National Sweet Sixteen, TBD*
June 2  National Final Four, Denver*

* If qualified