Lopes finding success with unorthodox organization strategy during quarantine
By Mack Drake
Photo Credit: Jeff Dalton Photography
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
With gyms closed, practices canceled, and entire seasons delayed because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, college coaches across the country have turned to unorthodox ways of keeping their teams in shape, mentally and physically.
It’s no different in the desert for the Grand Canyon University Men’s Rugby team.
Despite various issues the pandemic has presented, this offseason has been perhaps the program’s most successful recruiting period ever under head coach Sean O’Leary. The Lopes have over 40 incoming domestic and international recruits to pair with an already solid core group that led GCU to an encouraging 4-2 season last year.
So, what’s the problem?
As of now, similar to most college athletes in the United States, every player on the team is out on their own. The pandemic has prevented the team from getting together for the program’s usual offseason training and practice schedule.
To control the chaos and ensure his team is still being productive, O’Leary and his staff got creative. GCU coaches set up five “accountability groups” consisting of 5-10 players per group. O’Leary then assigned a team captain to head each group. Among other duties, the captains organize weekly Zoom meetings with their group members, coordinate workout videos and ensure that every player is completing the required paperwork to play in the upcoming season.
“As a team, we have had to instill various techniques to keep players engaged and in shape until we get the ‘all clear’ to begin doing what we love,” explained Logan Hill, one of the five selected captains. “Our coaches and team leaders have been forced to get creative to come up with ideas and solutions to make up for the lack of physical interaction and various regulations in place for our sport.”
“Once a week, the five leaders and the coaching staff get together in a Zoom meeting,” added Chris Noggle. “We typically discuss any questions or concerns going on, as well as any news from our coaches that we may have to pass on to our groups.”
Surprisingly, despite the distance between them, many of the players have grown closer since the pandemic. Program culture – something O’Leary considers to be the heartbeat of the program – has actually strengthened during quarantine, thanks to the accountability groups.
“While it seems like a simple check-in process, the accountability groups have built trust,” said Dom Iacovino. “There is constant communication between the players. The whole process is designed to hold everybody accountable and show you that your teammates are working just as hard as you are, and that you can count on them.”
The accountability groups have been especially useful in ingratiating the new recruiting class. The instant connectivity benefits inherent with Zoom and other virtual technologies have allowed inbound freshmen and transfer players to meet and create bonds with everybody on the team.
Normally, this type of chemistry doesn’t begin to take shape until the first day of fall training, when everybody has returned to campus.
“When I was a freshman, I showed up on the first day of training, and then started to meet the team,” Iacovino said. “We basically all know each other to a certain degree already because of our accountability groups.”
O’Leary and the Lopes have been energized by the incoming recruiting class, many of whom will play an immediate role this year after 14 seniors graduated from last year’s team.
“I’ve been very impressed by this recruiting class,” said captain Sam Muter. “They all seem to be very hungry and ready to contribute in any way.”
With GCU welcoming students back to campus in the next few weeks, a collective return to the rugby pitch may not be too far away. Until then, the Lopes will continue to train virtually in anticipation of the upcoming California Conference rugby season.
“Our motto is, ‘Whatever can be done will be done,’” said Royce Fisher. “Although this whole pandemic has been unfortunate, our accountability group process has been a great way for all the guys to interact and build chemistry that will help us a ton in the spring.”
Interested in joining GCU Men’s Rugby? Contact Coach O’Leary today!