WHEELING, W.Va. — Wheeling University’s Rugby team will be taking part in May Madness – the Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) – for the first time in the program’s history, and the team is excited to be representing the institution over Memorial Day weekend.
The Cardinals are one of 32 men’s teams invited to participate in the CRC, which will be played at The Gold Mine on Airline Stadium, home of Major League Rugby’s NOLA Gold, in New Orleans May 29-31. The team is a member of the National Collegiate Rugby – Open Division and competes within the Allegheny Rugby Union, which includes about 30 teams from the small colleges and open divisions.
Head Coach Mike Geibel said the team is honored the CRC committee chose his squad to compete at the rugby championship. He noted the CRC is the premier collegiate rugby 7’s tournament held in the United States, where only the top programs are showcased. The Cardinals were one of the first four teams selected for rugby championship.
“To be invited to play at this tournament is a sign that we are at the next step in our program’s evolution. The players are excited and want to represent Wheeling University well at the tournament. They hope to bring some hardware home,” Geibel added.
Team Captain, senior Brian Gannon of Oak Lawn, Illinois, said the team is ‘buzzing’ about competing at such a high level and having the opportunity to win a national championship. The team has spent the past three weeks training together twice per day in order to be ready for the tournament. The hard work in the weight room and on Bishop Schmitt Field has brought the team together. To break up the training days, Coach Geibel has taken the team to dinners at local restaurants and day trips to explore some of the natural beauty of the area’s state parks.
“Being selected to compete in nationals is a huge honor and is great for this rugby program. We will prepare by just taking care of the little things – taking our game prep day-by-day. I’ll try to help the boys by just sharing my experiences and leading them the best I can. This is a real privilege to compete at nationals, and we look forward to representing the University at the tournament,” added Gannon, whose position is scrum half/fly half.
The team’s tournament selection caught the eye of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who sent Coach Geibel congratulations. In a letter the Governor said, “It brings me great pride to see the Wheeling Cardinals defy the odds and have the opportunity to take this journey to the National Championship Tournament. This year especially, student-athletes have had to carry themselves with immeasurable grace and integrity as we navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic…It is my sincere hope that you enjoy this special time … regardless of the outcome, please know that we are so proud of you, and country roads will always lead you home.”
The Cardinals finished third in the Tropical 7s Tournament in Orlando, Florida April 2-3, suffering just one loss to Life University. “Anytime you can go 5-1 and the only loss was to a program like Life University is a pretty good weekend. We opened some eyes, and put Wheeling on the national radar that weekend. I’m proud of way the guys played, but even more than on the field, I had numerous tournament officials and staff comment to me how respectful and pleasant our players were all weekend.”
During their time in New Orleans, the team will connect with Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of New Orleans to give back to the community by packing distribution boxes for the Food for Seniors program.
“Part of the culture of our team is that we want to build great people, and just as much as we do on the field, we want to instill those values in areas of life outside of rugby as well. There’s an old saying that rugby builds character, and we try to live up to that standard,” said Geibel.
Wheeling’s Director of Athletics, Patrick Snively, said, “Our rugby program, under Coach Geibel’s guidance, is a program quickly on the rise. Our student-athletes are gritty, tough and talented, and have been a lot of fun to watch compete. I am excited for them to have the opportunity to showcase their skill against some of the best teams in the country.”
For the Collegiate Rugby Championship, Geibel will be taking 12 players to the tournament, which was held in Philadelphia the last eight years. “The rugby alumni said if the team got invited to the CRC, they would help fund raise to make the trip possible. They are making true on their promise.”
The 12 student-athletes competing in the CRC are from five states across the country (Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, and New Jersey) and five countries (Ireland, Morocco, Spain, South Africa, and Zimbabwe), Geibel noted. Currently, he has 14 recruits committed for the Fall of 2021, and expects a total roster of 25-30 players next year. “Our team roster next year will represent eight different U.S. states and nine other countries,” the coach explained.
Before becoming head coach of the Cardinals in 2019, Geibel lead the women’s rugby program Eckerd College for six years. During his tenure at Eckerd, Geibel led the team to four-straight Florida Rugby Union Division II Championships and four-straight appearances in the round of 16 at the USA Rugby Championships from 2016-19. He also served as the Program Director for the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) South All-Stars and was the Communications Director for the Florida Rugby Union. Geibel holds a USA Rugby Level 300/World Rugby Level II coaching certification. He played collegiately at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, before concluding his career as a tight head prop at Eckerd.
Wheeling University President Ginny R. Favede said, “I am so very proud of Coach Geibel and the players. I commend them on their outstanding season and their record of 13-1. This invitation is proof the team is a national contender and has caught the attention of the rugby community around the country. More importantly, I know the team will do their very best to represent Wheeling University well on and off the field at the tournament. When they take the field at the tournament, I hope they know all of us – faculty, staff, students and alumni – will be cheering for them.” The tournament will be shown live on the USA Sevens Facebook page, The Rugby Network app and website, and broadcast to more than 10 million televisions across the southeast on Cox Sports.