Rugby club defeats Vanderbilt in season opener

Junior Vick Gilbert reaches over a Vanderbilt player in a line-out. UNA won the Sept. 3 game against the Commodores, 20-0 at Veterans Park.

The UNA rugby club is looking to improve upon their 2015 season with a statement win against Vanderbilt at Veterans Park.

The club began the season Sept. 3 when Vanderbilt came to Florence in a rare case of a Southeastern Conference team visiting the Renaissance City, where the Lions handed the Commodores a defeat, 20-0.

“Our athletes match up with their athletes,” said coach Eddie Roberts. “It’s all about conditioning and skill set. UNA has tremendous athletes. You can see the amount of athleticism we have, so it’s just a matter of teaching them rugby.”

The players also share the sentiment that they could go toe-to-toe with the Vanderbilt squad, Roberts said.

“We get way more excited when we play a larger school like that,” said senior Trevor Brooks. “We’ve been preparing for this game all summer, and we are hoping for a big fan turnout.”

Senior Eli Phillips said that preparation for games is not always about physical preparation, but also mental preparation.

“We prepare more mentally for games like this,” Phillips said.  “It’s a mental game. You got to have a good mind set. I’m a clown out there before the game starts and laid back, but when that game starts, I’m more serious. That’s my way of shaking the jitters before the game.”

Junior Vick Gilbert said the victory was a great win for the team as a whole.

“After the strong performance we put up, I was very pleased with how our team played,” Gilbert said. “Especially because we wanted to incorporate our new guys a lot and they really stepped up and answered the call.”

In the 2015-16 season, the Lions finished ranked No. 21 in the nation after making it to the second round of the playoffs.

The Lions lost former star and two-time All-American Mathew Moore to graduation and will have to continue to find ways to replace his contributions.

The 2016 squad should not have to look far to accomplish this, as the team features 11 returning starters and two returning All-Americans including  Phillips and Brooks.

With this many returning starters from a team that made a deep push in the playoffs a year ago, the team is looking good, Roberts said. Capitalizing on these returning experienced players will be a key for success this season.

“With 16 returning letterman and 11 returning starters, we have a lot of returning experience.” Roberts said.

The retuning players participated in a summer workout program to prepare for the season.

“We’ve been preparing all summer,” Brooks said. “We’d get together and practice ball drills and get ready for these games.”

The club will play their next game when they travel to Western Kentucky University, where they will face their second division-one classified club Sept. 10.