By Anton Malko, Pac-12 rugby contributor
Since the team’s founding season in 1975, the Arizona State Sun Devils have compiled all-time records of 349-247 (.585) in the traditional, 15-a-side game and 88-30 (.745) in the seven-man, Olympic code of rugby that heads back into the Summer Games at Rio in 2016.
Head coach Gary B. Lane, in his 12th year at the helm of ASU rugby, has seen his team has taken on the ethos and many of the trappings of a high-performance organization. That trend continues this season on the shoulders of a talented team led by three juniors.
Now a team captain as a fullback in his third year from Wisconsin, where he earned all-state rugby honors at Oconomowoc High School, Adam Sandstrom stands out as a leader along with back Sione Letoi and lock Eric Rygiel.
Former USA Rugby High School All-American Sandstrom and Rygiel were members of the U.S. National U-20 team in the summer tour of 2011, when Letoi toured as a High School All-American before he joined the U.S. U-20s in 2012, when the Americans won the Junior World Rugby Trophy.
Coach Lane called Sandstrom “a banner carrier for ASU rugby” and offered praise to all three players for the things they do to create a positive big picture for ASU rugby.
“They’ve overcome challenges and shown their competence,” Lane said. “We are trying to show young men a good avenue in life and that if you put in the hard work, you get the benefits. The players know the most important indicator of their success as a team is its standing as a contributing member of the campus community.”
Sandstrom said the team tries “to get involved on campus as much we can. The school sees the success that we're having and people are recognizing us as a successful program. It's huge to play with the ASU logo on our jersey and we want represent the university well.”
Rygiel, with his major in secondary education and emphasis on mathematics, plans to become a teacher after taking his rugby career as far as it can go. Born in Minnesota and partially raised in Colorado, he was a hockey player before joining the local youth rugby club for his first season as a high-school senior after becoming inspired by the Clint Eastwood film Invictus.
His team won the state championship and Rygiels moved on to college at ASU, where he has become a major contributor to Sun Devil rugby as a tall and rangy lock who stands at 6-5 and tips the scales at 235 pounds.
"I love our guys,” said Rygiels. “Once I realized what a unique culture of moral and physical values rugby offers, I haven’t wanted to put any limits on what I could do and where I could go with my rugby career.”
“Eric’s a very accomplished person,” said Lane. “It hasn't been easy for him, working many hours to be able to afford ASU, and his commitment to the program is fabulous. I admire him.”
Rygiels credited his coach for ASU’s can-do spirit. “That attitude has been created by Gary Lane,” he said. “He has one of the biggest hearts.”
Letoi is an outside center and flyhalf on the rugby pitch and a criminal justice major at the university who arrived in the United States as a six-year-old from American Samoa. Having taken up rugby at the end of his high school career at nearby Corona Del Sol, Letoi is striving to become the first member of his family to graduate from college after transferring to ASU from Mesa Community College.
Although many Polynesians play the game throughout their childhoods, Letoi got off to a relatively late start, but his ramp-up has been rapid. The 5-11, 210-pound player was a cornerback on the Corona HS football team, but his future plans as a student-athlete are all around rugby: “Playing for ASU means a lot to me and my next goal is to make the Collegiate All-America team. Someday I hope for a chance to make it to the U.S. National 7s Team. Rugby got my attention and took me somewhere. It has taught me everything as a person.”
“Sione's had a long road and he's worked hard to stay on path,” commented Lane. “A lot of people want to come and play but not a lot of people have the perseverance.”
For its commitment to supporting Sun Devil student-athletes, coach Lane also turned his praise to the ASU administration. “This team is not successful without the support of the administration. We are appreciative to everyone for their hard work and cooperation. Every rugby team is a work in progress and we're never fully satisfied, but the team is maturing nicely.”
The 2013 spring PAC Rugby Conference schedule kicks off for the Sun Devils kick on Saturday, Feb. 2, when ASU visits Cal for a showdown on Witter Rugby Field. Visit asurugby.com to learn more about this rising rugby team.