Thursday, April 16, 2015

Lindenwood University on the Move

LU Lions Rugby Program has been impressive in their four, short years of operation: USAR Division-2 National Championship in 2011, a jump to Division 1-A in 2012 and playoff runs in that elite college competition every year since. The St. Charles, MO University program has accomplished this with an exemplary instructional staff, impressive backing from the institution’s athletics department and a recruiting scheme that has lured some of the top rugby talent in the nation, including some of Colorado’s finest schoolboy flair.

Coaching Staff 

Head coach and Director of Rugby JD Stephenson, a Canberra (AUS) native, has assembled a formidable cohort of instructors, trainers and advisors to manage, monitor and educate the 70 student-athletes on his roster, 100% of which are on scholarship; that’s right parent – all members of the program are on some sort of institutional scholarship for rugby, determined by individual student-athlete’s financial need.

Coach Stephenson employs a two-stage developmental program where the elite squad of 40 forms a pool from which Stephenson and forwards coach, Tim MacNamara*, select the roster for the Lions upcoming fixture, and the remaining 30 comprise a “developmental contingent” of players yet improving under the direction of contact specialist, Trevor Locke.

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Stephenson is not all about the sport, however: “Student-Athlete is the noun we give to classify our players, there is no “Athlete” without reaching academic requirements set by the school - a GPA 2.0, though our (rugby) program requires a bit more than that - a GPA of 2.5. He continues: “To help facilitate this, we have mandatory study halls on Wednesdays and Sundays for 2 hours for anyone who is a first-time freshman or for who have dropped below a 3.0.”

The sophisticated Lions pilot knows of the link between athletics and academics: “In my opinion, there is a direct correlation between in the classroom success and on the field success. Smart individuals make for smart footballers, they adapt to the play quicker, retain and complete messages and directions for the coach easier, and understand the why of doing something.”

Administrative Support

Lions Rugby receives considerable backing from the University. It is recognized as a Varsity Sport with all the benefits that designation entails: scholarship funding, extra-time tutorial offerings, full access to LU’s state-of-the-art athletic facilities, trainers and medical support groups.

Mike Elam has been at Lindenwood University for a decade in a variety of roles, from ROTC instructor-to-admissions counselor and has been three years in his present position as Director of Student Life Sports and Competitive Programs, very much a cerebral athletic director. He oversees a sports panoply that encompasses an incredible assortment of activities: shooting, weightlifting, wrestling, synchronized swimming, skating, bowling, billiards, table tennis make up the 31 co-ed physical endeavors on offer at Lindenwood, and he states, “All of our programs are fully funded and offer scholarship opportunities. Scholarships are given as institutional grants and are holistic in nature and look towards the well-rounded student-athlete. That is, all Lindenwood grants are based on Scholastics, Athletics, co-curricular and Leadership-based activities, (as well as) family need. Each student-athlete and their family receives an individualized financial aid strategy from an admissions and financial aid counselor who works closely with the (appropriate) coaching staff.”

Elam is enthusiastic about the men’s and women’s rugby programs he administers indicating that both programs have performed, “Extremely well! I am very proud of our men’s and women’s programs. Both have quickly moved to the top of collegiate rugby.” And Elam is confident in the direction his head rugby coaches, Stephenson and women’s rugby coach, Billy Nicholas, are heading: “With the leadership of the Director of Rugby Operations and Men’s head coach JD Stephenson, the sky is the limit. He is young, energetic and full of passion for the sport and Lindenwood. His target goal of developing the game in the United States is his greatest priority, which I respect greatly. His commitment to the game in the Mid-west is unparalleled. The time he commits to high school and club programs’ developments is admirable.” Elam is quick to add, “. I know you asked about the men’s program, however, I cannot say enough about Billy Nicholas. Since his arrival in August his impact on the quality of our women’s program is immeasurable. Billy’s dedication and attention to detail as the women’s coach is also impressive, we look forward to having him as a full-time staff member in the school year 2015-16.”

The Colorado Factor

Since 2010 and former head coach Ron Laszewski’s recruiting trip to the Rocky Mountain Challenge, Colorado has funneled rugby student-athletes to Lindenwood starting with blindside flanker Tyler Black (CS Grizzlies), as daunting a breakaway as you’re likely to see at age-grade and continuing today with significance as former Grizzlies Dallas Frye (currently rehabbing),and lastly LU’s Captain and Collegiate All American Mikey Gierlach plies his rugby trade at the Missouri University.

Dallas Frye, who captained his Grizzlies XV to the Colorado State Championship (premier division) in 2012, is a 2014 enrollee at Lindenwood, and he describes his immersion in the Lions rugby culture: “The differences between LU and my previous university are immense… it’s practically a 180. Here at LU, the program from the head down is treated in an incredibly professional manner. There’s enough players to comfortably field three sides and the coaches foster a learning atmosphere where you can see growth from the inexperienced to the very experienced consistently, both on- and off-pitch. Aside from the rugby aspect of the game, the players are given access to everything from free chiropractic care, weightlifting regimens, and regular physio attention to ensure that we show up in the best condition possible to train and play. The work on and off the pitch required to make it into the elite squad (which is our top two sides) is humbling for most, but it only helps to improve the culture of the team which is by far the best I’ve ever seen or been a part of. I have major admiration for the players and coaches that have taken this program from nothing only a few years back to a major contender in D-1A and I’m excited to see the LU legacy continue.”

Gierlach, a 2014 Collegiate Rugby All-American is equally expressive of the Lindenwood Experience and he states: “The (fixture) schedule has made for a grueling season, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Playing highly competitive games week in week out has made us a better team, something a weaker schedule wouldn’t do.”

Stephenson is ever in the hunt for rugby talent and he cruises the nation in that pursuit. A potential rugby recruit can expect a student-first setup that is, “very professional in an academy structure-type format, focused on player development, whole-part-whole, well-rounded, and versatile; teaching situational awareness,” in addition to providing a sound foundation for life beyond Lindenwood.

If you are a high school upper classman (or woman) and would like to investigate the possibility of playing rugby for the Lions, the best means of accessing initial information would be to go online and check out LU’s easily-navigable website and completing a recruiting questionnaire or contact Coach JD Stephenson directly at or 636-949-4127.

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