THE FIRST XV: 1975-1989
Our birth in 1975 was probably not unlike the birth of most American rugby clubs, a fledgling group of young men intent on athletic competition and fun. Since then, we have grown into one of the premier University sides in America, who have yet to reach their full potential.
A freshman named Frank Dooley recruited able bodied and not so able minded Bona students to take up the game of Rugby. About 40 players got together behind McGraw-Jennings Field to learn what it was all about, terms like “scrum”, “lineout”, “pitch” and others were rehashed over a few frosties in the “Skellar”. Practice began and we all looked forward with wild anticipation to our first spring season. Dooley was the founder and acted as the first coach of SBU Rugby. Financially we were on our own and hoped for some funding in semesters to come. The University had had a few bad experiences in funding programs that had died on the vine and decided to wait and see what developed. We ended up with about 30 players and paid all of our own expenses and were accepted as a club sport.
With four weeks of serious practice under our belts we were uncertain of where we stood. We were soundly defeated in our first match against Brockport State, on the road, but played tough in our first game. The good thing was that the only place for us to go was forward. We were an athletic, physical bunch that could hit and tackle hard but we had a lot to learn on the offensive side of the ball.
"The first match was in '75, more like winter because there was a fresh blanket of 3 inches of snow on the pitch. Our club was comprised of mostly 3rd and 4th year students. I believe that Herb Eaton, our "coach" Frank Dooley, and myself were the lone freshman. We attempted to stay warm while we waited for the Brockport side to show up for the match. We all wore hats, gloves, sweatpants and sweatshirts or jackets trying to stay warm. Brockport finally showed up in the 3 or 4 car motorcade. They all came running down to the pitch dressed in their rugby kit only. Some with short sleeves, all with shorts. These were men coming to instruct boys how to play this new, strange game. The "Doggies" carried a couple of balls, and kit bags, but what we immediately noticed that they were carrying about 6-7 gallon jugs of hard citer, some half gone. We were dressed in brown mesh practice jerseys (on top of sweats) loaned to us by the soccer team. Our club owned one ball, no jerseys." - Tim Burke
Frank Dooley didn’t return for his sophomore year in 1976.A small core of knowledgeable players helped keep the club together. We were looking to schedule a few games for the fall and book a complete spring season. We had about 6-8 players return so we basically were starting over. As the roster grew, so did the list of W's, beginning with impressive wins first over the Genesee Creamers and then Buffalo State; the ice had been broken. A Try was worth four points back then and the legal drinking age was 18 and we got a sponsor to donate kegs for our home games so that we could bribe our fellow students to come out and cheer us on. It worked, and we soon had a very strong student following, isn’t beer wonderful!
Much was still left to be learned though, particularly in the area of fiscal management. The team was self funded and cash inflow was crucial. Club fees were established to cover some expenses and the additional $16 for jerseys and equipment were covered by the players. It was during this time that that traditions began to develop: a rugby match on Parent's weekend, which to this day remains one of the biggest draws on campus and carrying the after party through song and other "acts of bravado".
In the fall of 79, the club record was .500 but the team was competitive every week and started to realize they could become very good. The Spring on 1979 is when several players from Shay, Billy Gleason, Mark Fitzgerald, Pat Doyle, Tony Laughlin, Joe Mooney, John O’Rourke, Paul Bunting and Don “Phro” Wilkey (returned from breaking both ankles his freshman year) first came out and formed a nucleus that would lead the club into the 80’s.
Going into the 80’s, we were very fortunate to have been graced with the presence of our new full-time coach Dr. Al Silliker. At the time, Al was an assistant professor of education when his sister, who was a student at the time, met a few rugby players who had mentioned they were looking for a coach. Al first picked up a rugby ball as a student at Georgetown University and was the first person to teach the proper fundamentals of the game. He was passionate about the game and gave the team 20 hours per week all for the handsome sum of $0. Al had great experience and with the addition of experienced “off-campus” players Randy Farnsworth and Roy Doty we were primed to make a better showing. As fundamentals improved, everyone on the team had agreed that we needed to be the “most fit” team on the pitch to make up for our lack of experience. We began winning games, became members of the Upstate Union.
"I'd like to thank Dr. Al Silliker who should be nominated for sainthood. He probably doesn't realize the subtle and lasting influence he had on so many of us. He managed to corral unruly hooligans, teach us an alien sport, and keep us safe, and marginally well behaved. Dr. Silliker's unflappable manner provided an outstanding role model for us all, and when I think of playing rugby, I think of Al's enthusiasm, dedication, and patience". - Bobby Sims
During these years, parties were held at such “famous” bars as AJ’s, The Wormy Chestnut, the RC, the Skellar, Butler Gym, the Brick House, the Orphanage, Garden East and anywhere else the guys could find.
While most teams were heading to Florida for Spring break, in 1980 our guys decided to head to Galveston, TX where they played tough competition and began to mature as a team…on the field that is. Why Galveston? That may forever remain a mystery but it was on the Gulf of Mexico and they figured the weather would be nice and there was the Islander Invitational Tournament. Having tested their mettle against various men's clubs and colleges since the club's inception, Galveston presented the opportunity for the Bona Ruggers to expand their universe.
They drove 33 hours to Houston in a van that fit 13 guys, plus Dan Squilla drove his car and a U-Haul that fit all the beer and equipment. There they played a physical game the Tuesday night they arrived in front of a couple thousand people against the Houston Heathens RFC (Steve Headd’s brother’s team) which ended on a 0-0 tie…which was a highlight and felt like a win against the much bigger and experienced Houston side. The after party was held at a self-service bar whose motto was “Hangovers Installed and Served” and then it was off to Galveston. In one of the better “home jobs” by a referee, our guys lost to the host’s Galveston RFC 20-18 and went on to find success in the tournament and make it back to Bonas alive and broke (not enough to pay for the rented van which the school later went on to cover).
Building upon their experiences in Galveston (both on and off the field), St. Bonaventure entered the fall season with high expectations. Upon their return, we hosted Seton Hall. Combining strong play by the Bonnies in addition to the Setan Hall's having partaken too much SBU hospitality the evening before, we were again in the win column on Parent's weekend. With a senior dominated team, the squad ended up with a 13-3-1 record, the most successful season since the club's inception.
The team was now recognized as a club sport by the University and more guys came out for the team and fan’s would pack the sidelines on Saturday afternoons to get their rugby fix. Matches during the years were played against the Little 3, Genesee Creamers, Brockport, RIT, UB and Buff State. The spring of 1981 marked the first trip to the New York "Upstate's". Scrapping together money through self funding, the team paid their union dues, making them eligible for entry into a tournament whose participants numbered among the state's best teams. The team defeated UB, Elmira and Albany before falling to the Schenectady Reds (and their prop who was rumored to have been one of the largest props in the history of rugby), finishing second out of 22 teams in the finals. The class of '81 finished out their playing days, taking St. Bonaventure to a new level of respectability on the field. The same could not be said off the field where "Skate" and Mr. Gleason started a post game worm eating tradition, a Cortland State player buried a "2" through the rim in Butler and Joe Mooney chairing the junior prom. Great times.
"I truly feel that a turning point in Bona Rugby was when Mark Fitzgerald '81 took over as club President in the spring of 1979". Billy Gleason
1982 presented a rebuilding year for the club, which returned only four of fifteen A Side players from the successful '81 team. Still under the tutelage of Alan Silliker, the club's nucleus was formed by Scott Bombard, Joe Mooney, Bobby Sims and Bill Malone. The team was able to pull some surprises that year, including a resounding 38-0 defeat of the Genesee Creamers. 1982 also brought about another "first" for the rugby club, a night fixture at Olean's Bradner Stadium vs. SUNY Geneseo. Leading the way for the 9-0 Bonnie win was Bobby Sims and Bill Holzhauer.
The mid-80's were a time of change for the team. Recurring injuries coupled with the demands of family and career mean that for the first time in many years, the team was without the guidance of Al Silliker. The self coached team was forced to reply on their own devices from a funding and administrative standpoint as well. Fund raisers were one of the mainstays for financing the team's activities. Tournament fees, uniforms and referee fees were paid out of pocket. Through it all, the team managed to persevere and achieve a level of interest and participation never before seen on campus.
Great leaders emerged from the mid 80's which helped alleviate the sting from losing Dr. Silliker. Among the many leaders that emerged, Bobby Sims, Brian Conley, Drew Carozza, Tom Fitzpatrick, Glenn McKeever and Jim Canty, who is our first rugby alum to serve on the University's Board of Trustees, helped guide the team at a time where we had no official head coach. There was time in the mid-80's when the general consensus held that the best course of action for the rugby team was to bring in a top caliber coach. Little did they realize that what they truly needed came in the form of an individual who knew nothing about rugby at all! In 1985, Joe Rosone was looking for a community service assignment handed down by Dean Divine, when he met Fr. Richard Flaherty. After he asked Joe "how do I get a rugby jacket?", Joe tried to recruit him as a prop and settled for a posit6ion as the team Chaplin. Mass was held Friday before the game and he would meet us on the pitch during warm-ups pre-game for a prayer. Through the years, players graduated and were replaced by but Padre was a constant staple for the Bona ruggers. Once describing his association with the team as his "calling", Fr. Richard committed over 15 years to the club, providing a vital link to the University and supporting the team in ways too numerous to describe. Whether it was being there for a pre-game prayer, going to court with a player in need of Judge Benjamin's mercy or simply being a good friend willing to listen and offer guidance, Joe Rosone's meeting that day in Campus Ministry helped recruit one of the greatest friends for the rugby team. While word alone are not adequate thanks for your years of dedication, know that your guidance and friendship are truly cherished, and we are better men having known you.
Though it still warms the hearts of some of the teams "original" (aka- older) ruggers, it wasn't long before the new standard was set for road trips. Based on an infamous international tour by our updstate rivals, the Finger Lakes Vikings, St. Bonaventure established a new medium for road trip travel...the converted moving van. Converted in the sense that what was once a square box for cargo became de facto living room, bar room, hotel on wheels. A lot of fun times and good rugby in the mid-80's, with memorable road trips to Wheeling, West Virginia, South Bend, Indiana and Fredericksburg, Virginia among others. In 1986, the team packed into a rented Ryder truck for a trip to Mary Washington for a tri-match with University of Maryland at Baltimore Campus (UMBC). Prior to the trip someone picked up a Black Lab at the pound. Maybe Tom Fitzpatrick or Brian Conley and named it Toby. He made the trip to Mary Washington and eventually back to campus with us. To this day, the picture of this team still hangs in the Burton which was taken outside of Hickey prior to our journey. On the way home, they were pulled over in Virginia. After the cop say the pack of misfits inside the Ryder and realized they were only miles from the MD border, he told us to get in the van and don't stop until we were out of his jurisdiction and the Commonwealth.
As fifteen years represents an eternity in a child's reaching maturity, so too was that span for the St. Bonaventure RFC. As in life, the club faced their difficulties, wins and losses, times of joy and times of collective sadness. From it all, one certainty was established; the club had set deep roots, and positioned itself well for the 90's and beyond.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP YEARS: 1990-2004
The 80’s laid the groundwork for rugby to gain momentum at SBU and the 90’s made the most of it by starting to win big matches and championships. While the team did not have a full time coach, we were fortunate to have a strong core of players who had the benefit of learning the game in high school. The Double Porch House (R.I.P.) became the home for many future rugby players and the basement had memories most would want to forget. The Burton was an institution and the OP, Mad Dogs and Hickey Tavern were bars the rugby team could be found in or working at.
It seems only fitting that prior to launching into the 1990's, a truly new era for the club, that recognition be paid to an individual who was instrumental in bringing the club from the team they were in the 80's to the level of prominence that they enjoyed in the 90's, and carry forth into the 00's. Many ruggers first introduction to Alex Nazemetz was when they saw his signature on their acceptance letter to St. Bonaventure. The team had tried for years to foster a relationship with the administration in that very rare instance there should ever be some type of disciplinary role. Little did anyone realize at the time, but the ultimate coup was in finding a rugby alum who was one of their own and at one point was in charge of SBU admissions area. Alex was always there for us to provide guidance, organizational know how and a strategic link to Danny and Patsy! While his work commitments at Bradford have taken much of his time in past reunions, the teams from the 90's owe a great deal of gratitude to Alex for all that he did for us. Thank you.
The rugby club established itself as a team to be reckoned with in the Upstate Rugby Union in 1989. Led by captain John Mudano, the team entered the union in the spring of 1989 and returned to a full and challenging fall schedule. The season opened with a home game and a 9-0 win against a tough Canisius club, Tom “Horni” Horton and Chris Reisig each punched in trys and the team made a strong showing. This was a great way to kick off the season and the Bona ruggers gained momentum and formed a new crop of leaders as the season went on. For the first time the team was hosted by Syracuse University of the Eastern Division and a good time was had by all. After a rough night at Sutter’s Mill, a local watering hole, the team, with the help of Brian Byrnes tied SU 4-4. Wins over Geneseo and Hobart closed out a strong season with a record of 3-1-1, the ruggers made it to the semi-finals, though were defeated by a stronger Cortland club. Senior Chris Coiley believed the year’s success were due to a united team effort. He said, “The team really matured over that season. The boys came through when they needed to and always gave a hundred percent.”
The team kicked off the 90's in "fashion" with a spring season road trip in a Ryder truck trip to Holy Cross. Needless to say, there was a fair amount of mayhem, but the team battled HC and pulled out a 48-45 victory. During the next two years of the 1990’s, the team continued to build upon its already strong foundation. Ruggers such as Scott Bryant, Mike “Q-tip” Keilman, Mikey Jennings, Pat Vaughan, Brendan McGarry, TED Duffy, Kevin Valis, and Jeff Jay were all instrumental in the club’s success against a tough upstate D1 competition.
In 1993, St. Bonaventure led by Captain Phil Lazarro, went undefeated in the regular season, won the first NY State Championship in the club's history and went on to lose a close match in the nationals in Kutztown. Rob Peraza was named NY State tournament MVP and it was the first time individual SBU players were recognized for select side play. Mike Byrnes ('93), Rob Peraza ('93 & '94), Billy Kelly ('93 & '94), Don Head ('94) and Ty Zinkiewich ('94) were named to the NY State All-Star Team. Billy Kelly was twice selected to the Eastern Collegiate All-Star Team ('93 & '94). For the first time in a long time, we were beating long time power houses like UB, Cornell, Buff State and Cortland and never had a year lacking depth on the roster. We were also fortunate to have support from a part time coaching staff that included Canisius alum JT Stofer and Canadian grad student Billy Reid.
"From hit one of the tournament, we intimidated the hell out of those teams." - Mike Byrnes
Picking up where their departed brethren left off, SBU continued to enjoy a great deal of success. Their winning another NY State Championship in 1998 culminated these successes. During the club's first championship season, there was a great core of young players who kept the momentum going, recruiting new players and becoming a more organized, dedicated team. Described by flanker Joe Franzetti "Pax Romana", or time of strength and prosperity for the Bona Rugby team, led by two-term president and all star Jerrod Whelan. Practice was intense, and drills became mandatory. But what this team knew best, on and off the field, was togetherness. After winning the state championship, the Bonnies hosted the first round of the Northeast Championships and defeated Middlebury (22-15 and then Colby to advance against Ivy power Yale. In a hard fought battle, we lost 22-20 in injury time but not without gaining the respect and national recognition the club deserved. During the championship run we met an Army team in the freezing rain at WestPoint, all with bald heads to support a friend and teammate, Mike Wyse, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and needed treatment at the time. Today, Mike is cancer free and continues to give back to the club both financially and as the VP of the SBU Rugby Alumni Board. Truly this was a fantastic time for the guys, always there to fly through the field and party with best of them; most of which are all great friends to this day.
"Moments come and go. But to be the state champions, I don't think there is a better feeling." - Joe Franzetti
"Our expectations are to send Middlebury on a long 9 hour road trip to Vermont feeling sorry for themselves. We will show them what Bonaventure rugby is all about." - Bruce Snyder
In 2000, the team celebrated our 25th Anniversary with a rugby alumni weekend that brought guys back to campus who had not been there in a very long time. Founding members Tom Ren, Nick Benvenuto, and Tim Burke celebrated and shared stories with future generations of Bona ruggers. This weekend, like so many before, could not have been possible without all of the support from Alex who always stepped up for the good of everyone. It was during this weekend when we really saw the potential of this program and decided to organize a rugby alumni board that would help organize alumni events, help provide funding for the team, help recruit and offer career guidance to the undergraduate players. Looking back on that alumni weekend, we realize they are times we should always remember and never take for granted. Shortly after, we suffered one of our greatest losses when Rob "Gringo" Peraza was murdered on September 11, 2001. Rob's family and friends created the "Robert Peraza Rugby Scholarship", an endowed scholarship that was established to help make it possible for a deserving student athlete attend SBU.