It was a cool, crisp autumn Sunday afternoon at Hamden Middle School. The sun was shining down on all who gathered, looking on in anticipation as New Blue Rugby took the field for the final time in 2013.
While the sun was shining down on the field, it was not shining on New Blue.
The club rugby team lost to Central Connecticut State University in a blowout, ending its season at a 1-4 finish.
At the end of the game, however, those standing by were just as proud as they had been on their way in three hours prior. Another year had gone by, and the New Blue brand was perhaps stronger than ever.
Parents, Quinnipiac students and New Blue alumni filled the sideline half an hour before the start of the contest. The ‘regulars,’ as members of the team coined them, help create quite a unique atmosphere at every game. They are a tight-knit group of supporters who show up religiously to show their support.
“You look at the sideline, at all the people, we are a family,” co-captain of New Blue Mike O’Reilly said.
The game didn’t go as the team or the fans had planed. New Blue, as they so often do, came racing out of the gates to an early lead. Ultimately, Central Connecticut would provide too much firepower to handle.
Jimmy Whelan, who graduated from Quinnipiac University last year and played with New Blue for four years, offered his take.
“We came out firing and we played really well in the first half,” Whelan said. “Then, just like every good experienced team does, they put it away.”
Whelan stands with the team on the sideline during each game, and offers his advice to the players. He even makes substitutions and addresses the team at halftime and at the end of each game, all things a coach does.
Make no mistake, though. Whelan does not call himself a coach, perhaps because he was a member of the team a year earlier.
“There is no funding, we are all on our own, so there is no coach,” Whelan explained. “As alumni’s we just try to pass our knowledge down through the ranks. So that is what I am doing.”
The team, as O’Reilly puts it, is much more than meets the eye. That is why those who graduate choose to stick around.
“We go to the library as a team, we do everything together” O’Reilly said. “These are the guys you are going out with, learning with, and then you end up an alumni before you can blink.”
O’Reilly is speaking from experience. He is now just like Whelen, he is an alumnus. Sunday’s game marked the culmination of his career with New Blue. O’Reilly will, however, be coming back to Quinnipiac next year as a graduate student in the Physical Therapy program.
“I’ll be on the sideline next season, of course,” O’Reilly said with a slight grin. “No brotherhood is solidified more than going to battle, and hitting the other team together.”
O’Reilly went on to say he will be helping the team by giving insight and advice, similar to what many former players in the program do. He was a part of four winning seasons, the last of which he helped New Blue capture the New England Wide Collegiate Rugby Conference championship.
That team graduated 14 seniors for its 2013 season, according to Whelan. The only starter from last year’s team who came back was the other co-captain, Marc Villalongue.
Villalongue stood in the center of the team huddle at the conclusion of Sunday’s game for the last time and spoke.
“This team has come a long way, we pretty much started the team this year from scratch,” Villalongue said. “I am really proud. The record doesn’t show it, but these guys just showed up and worked hard, and I told them that.”
O’Reilly, like Villalongue, took a few moments to address the team for the final time as a member, as well.
“I told our guys to keep their heads up, it was a good year and a great learning experience,” O’Reilly said. “I stood up at the end and just had everyone look me dead in the eye, and I told them to not ever forget how it feels to lose.”
Both O’Reilly and Villalongue spoke about the valuable playing time the younger players got, and how the future looks bright for the squad.
Whelan reiterated their thoughts, and expressed some excitement moving forward.
“We just have to keep building,” Whelan said. “Usually these younger kids wouldn’t play as much this year, but they had to because of our class that graduated last year. They will be more experienced.”
Whelan also spoke briefly about the future of where New Blue plays, but emphasized the fact that the players need to maintain focus.
“Hopefully long-term you see something out of Quinnipiac. In the short term, we just have to come back no matter where we play and make sure we are firing on all cylinders,” Whelan said.
The day ended after Villalongue reflected on his time, peering into the distance as he spoke.
“To be honest, this was probably the best four years of my life,” Villalongue said. “Being a part of this team was incredible.”