While they may only be a club team, the Volunteers rugby team could possibly be having one of the best seasons within the UT Athletic Department this year.
The Vols find themselves with a near perfect record, only recording one loss all season. For head coach Marty Bradley, this is an impressive feat because of the number of players they had to replace.
"We did have a good season," Bradley said. "It's a particularly satisfying season when you consider that we had 16 seniors that left our program last year and we had a lot of people to replace. Our younger players really stepped up, we got several freshman that are contributing and a handful of sophomores that are contributing every week. So with the youth that had to step up, it's been an incredibly satisfying season."
With the success that they had this season, the Vols found themselves in the Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference Playoffs (the equivalent of the SEC Tournament) against the Ole Miss Rebels in the semifinals.
"They were a team that was much bigger than us, and we really had to fight the whole game," Bradley said. "They got a lead on us and carried that lead all the way into just a little over five minutes left to go in the game. We finally were able to put in a try that got the lead for us, and we had to fight them off at the end."
Following their narrow victory against Ole Miss, the team focused their attention on winning the SCRC against the South Carolina Gamecocks, a team that they had a faced just a week prior.
"We survived and advanced on Saturday and then we played South Carolina on Sunday," Bradley said. "They were a team that we had just faced a week prior, and we actually had to come from behind to them then, so we knew it was going to be a tough one.
"We took a little different strategy then we did the week before, we put a bigger lineup on the field and we really hit them inside, and it worked."
The SCRC Playoff champions now find themselves hosting the Sweet Sixteen of the USA Rugby Playoffs this weekend. Junior prop Joe Carpenter believes that their recent hard-fought matches in the past couple of weeks has helped this team grow.
"I think it was critical that we ran into the competition that we ran into the last couple of weeks," Carpenter said. "We've really tightened up our pattern and we've gained a lot of trust in one another knowing that no matter who is on that field that everybody is going to go with the form, so that helps out with building the character of the team by really toughening us up, and it made us realize that we can beat any team as long as we put our minds to it and as long as we are working together."
As the team searches for a national championship (they lost in the Final Four last year to San Diego State), Carpenter believes that the team is really confident heading into the national playoffs.
"We are very confident right now because we do think we are the best team in the tournament," Carpenter said. "All the guys have bought in to the fact that we're not satisfied with just winning an SEC championship, we're trying to win a national championship. We made it to the Final Four last year and lost, so we don't want to go to the Final Four just to lose again. I think everybody has bought into that; that we're here to win it, so we're all really confident at this point."
The Vols will start play in the USA Rugby Playoffs on Saturday against the Central Florida Knight at the Tennessee Rugby Park. The winner of the UT-UCF matchup will face-off against the winner of the South Carolina-Clemson game in the round of eight.