A Pitt team is going to gamble for a big win in Las Vegas — but not in the casinos.
Pitt’s men’s club rugby team will compete in the Las Vegas Invitational from Thursday to Sunday with the hope of qualifying for the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship in May.
“We participated in this tournament and are preparing for it similarly to years past,” Andrew Knuttel, a senior who plays hooker on the team, said. “Obviously the weather hasn’t been cooperative, but we have to work with what we are given. We don’t want to be a team that makes excuses, so we’ve had practices out in the snow when we needed to.”
Pitt will face off against Dartmouth, Georgetown and the Air Force Academy over the weekend, all of which could pose significant challenges for the Panthers.
Dartmouth’s club has won the Ivy League every year since 2008, and Air Force went 6-1 in its fall schedule. The final team in Pitt’s pool, Georgetown, went 6-2 in its own fall schedule.
Regardless of how this tournament turns out, Pitt will still continue its tournament schedule by competing in the Keystone Collegiate Rugby Tournament in the spring. Although some of the players may be young, the team still has faith in its capability to do well in Las Vegas.
“I believe our team’s strength comes in its diversity of players,” Knuttel said. “We have some older, more knowledgeable and polished players to complement some of our younger and less experienced but very athletic players. We’re friends on and off the field, so we’re willing to make sacrifices for each other on the field.”
The team has been preparing for its season since before winter break, practicing Mondays and Thursdays on the field behind the Cost Center and trying to add in weekend practices whenever possible. These practices last four hours, two for the sevens practice — which features shorter matches with only seven of the 15 team members — and then another two for the 15s.
They also teamed up with Panther Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Club to practice tackling techniques. With the help of Panther MMA, the team can try new tactics all while varying its practices.
Even as the team prepares, its main challenge lies in its inexperience: a majority of the players are freshmen, some of whom have never played in a tournament of this size before.
“Our team has a lot of younger players,” Knuttel said, “so a main focus [during practice] is learning how to work with each other and knowing what certain players will do.”
Having three practices a week, averaging more than eight hours, helps to build their strength as a single unit and brings the team closer together, according to junior flyhalf Christian Quiros.
“Our team has good chemistry,” Quiros said. “And the good thing about having a young team is that everyone will be back next year.”
So with this hard-earned chemistry, the question for team captain Connor Janawitz is how that will translate to success in Las Vegas. The senior scrumhalf said its youth will not be an excuse and described the tournament as an “experience.”
“Because our team is mostly freshmen, we are a lot smaller than the other teams,” Janawitz said. “But, as long as we know how to tackle, then it shouldn’t matter.”
Junior Noble Smith agreed and added that athleticism has the ability to even the odds on the field.
“A good rugby player is someone who balances athleticism with good decision making on the field,” Smith said. “We have an athletic team going to Vegas, and I think that we can surprise some people.”