Someone shouts “Good job boys!” through desperate gasps for air, and thus ends another Arizona rugby practice. Wind sprints have followed two hours of back-and-forth battles, tackle drills and scrums, and there isn’t a dry back on the field. There are only a handful left this year as the Wildcats prepare for the Division II Final Four, their first, and this team is going to make the most of it.
They owe it to themselves, they believe, and to Sean Duffy, the barely older first-year head coach.
And they owe it to Dave Sitton.
Sitton, the longtime head coach of the Wildcats, passed away suddenly on Aug. 12, 2013, at the age of 58, the result of a pulmonary embolism. The play-by-play voice for Arizona’s football, basketball and baseball teams originally assumed the reins of the program as a college senior at the age of 22 in 1978. While his heart may have been Tucson and his career, Sitton poured his soul into his favorite sport for 35 years, building a program, a fanbase, a family.
His death stunned the community, the school and his players, who had become accustomed to the frequent phone calls from their leader. All of a sudden, the phone stopped ringing.
“There was a period of disbelief, a period of anger, a period of sadness, obviously,” team captain Trevor Laue said. “But then it was a period of focus. We have a mission now. We have a mission to honor him now, to play the best we can. That’s really what brought us together in the end.”
It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen quickly.
Duffy, a 26-year old former Saint Joseph’s assistant and USA Rugby administrator, knew upon becoming the first full-time head coach in Arizona history that he wasn’t just in charge of his own team for the first time, but at the helm of a healing process.
The tears had mostly dried by the time Duffy took over in early January, but there was still work to be done on the Wildcat spirit. In addition to his coaching responsibilities, Duffy said he had to put his arm around every player in the program, Big Brother telling the gang that “we need to build a program that Coach would be proud of.”
He was careful to make sure he carved out his own path — “I didn’t come in here trying to be Dave, I tried to be me,” he says — but he also understood that the program would from here forth be in his image. That first practice, he wanted to introduce a culture while still dealing with a reeling squad.
It was strange to be out there without Sitton, “surreal,” as Laue puts it. The former Arizona football preferred walk-on out of Barrington, Ill., had never stepped on the Rincon Sports Complex field without Sitton standing there waiting. The players had to feel it out. It took a little while.
“It was probably the first mistake, the first time someone got yelled at, and it was like … this is still rugby,” Laue said. “You still have to catch the ball, pass the ball, run with it. Still have to tackle and ruck. Being back here with the guys was the best therapy for the whole team.”
Therapy, with a mix of nausea.
Senior inside/center Jack Arnold recalls returning to the practice field on that morning right after winter break, coming off a shoulder surgery, expecting to just do a few drills, to get a new lay of the land.
“First thing we did was start running,” Arnold said. “I pretty much died. But I knew that would set the tone for the season.”
Duffy added: “Step 1 was putting my cards on the table early, laying out the expectations. I showed them how much effort I would put in, and all I could ask was that they put in the effort, as well. The guys bought in one by one. I can go back and point to each and every guy and tell you when they bought in to this.”
For some, it came after a 25-19 win over Air Force, the team’s lone win in six games to start the season. After a blowout loss to No. 6 St. Mary’s to open the season, and a narrow loss to Utah a week later, the Wildcats’ win over the Falcons gave the team a boost.
Short-lived though it may have been — Arizona lost to its next two opponents 154-20 — the Wildcats saw something in themselves.
Then Duffy saw it.
On March 29 against Arizona State, on a day the program renamed its field after Sitton in front of his friends and family, the Wildcats scored three tries in the last five minutes to win 51-38. In mid-December, against the same Sun Devils, Arizona let Arizona State eke back and eventually tie in the last five minutes.
The role reversal, from heroes to goats and back, propelled the Wildcats forward.
They have won five straight now, including a 27-24 win over Stanford in the playoff quarterfinals that set up their bout with Bowling Green on May 10 in the semis. On the line, a date with either San Diego or Central Florida, the defending D-II national champions.
“I didn’t expect success this quick,” said Arnold, whose father, Delbert, coaches the Texas-El Paso club rugby squad and the El Paso Scorpions club.
As the Wildcats take the field against Bowling Green on Friday, Sitton will be with them once more, the “D” and “S” on the team’s sleeves a reminder he’s always with them.
It’s a constant reminder, and one that Duffy has taken to heart.
Ever-respectful to Sitton’s legacy, Duffy has introduced one important new tradition to the Wildcats.
He has his players prepare in warm-ups, and wait until the last minute to put on their jerseys, to get the guys in the right state of mind. He calls it “flipping the switch.”
Before they flipped the switch last weekend in the quarterfinals against a Long Beach State team that knocked them out in the Sweet 16 a year ago, Duffy had his players grab hold of their jerseys and look it up and down.
He wants his players to know what they’re playing for.
Duffy had them stare at the giant A that adorns their chest, soaking it in.
He had them feel the “D” and the “S” on the sleeves, letting it wash over them.
He asked them to look at one another, re-forging the bond.
“Those are the three reasons the guys are doing this, putting in all this effort,” Duffy said. “When you get them to put it all together — playing for Arizona, for Coach Sitton, for each other — really, the sky is the limit.”