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AA Diamonds in the Rough

Monday Aug 3, 2009 in Elite Level Rugby National Teams

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(Mike Shepherd leads the way for Indiana University. Joan Shepherd photo.)

The list of colleges represented on the All American squad is a predictable list: BYU, Cal, San Diego State, Arkansas State, Life University. Almost every player on the starting XV and reserves bench for Friday’s match were from top DI college programs.


Every All American tour players emerge from college programs that aren’t traditionally strong, or haven’t exactly lit things up lately. Every year it seems the All American program plucks a player out of relative obscurity – an underperforming or unknown DI team, or a DII school – and gives them an opportunity to be a star.

Top to bottom: Eric Barrett (in the headgear), Tom Katzfey the basketball player, Tom Katzfey the rugby player, Mike Shepherd.

In recent years, players such as James Gillenwater (Vanderbilt), Mike Palefau (Southern Utah), Jarvis Albury and Matt Huckaby (Arkansas State when they were DII), Todd Clever (Nevada-Reno), Paul Emerick (Northern Iowa), Cayo Nicolau (Middle Tennessee State) and John Tarpoff (Southern Illinois) all used the All Americans to launch an international career with the Eagles.

Some certainly had an earlier jump-start thanks to the age-grade programs (Clever and Tarpoff), while others weren’t even playing rugby at their school (Palefau), but the point remains. Anyone can use the All American program to become a star.

This year the players of note are Eric Barrett, Tom Katzfey and Mike Shepherd.

Barrett plays for Central Michigan University, which is by no means a rugby power. But he is motivated. Barrett’s brother, Steve, also played at school in Michigan and now pitches up for the Boston Irish Wolfhounds. Barrett the younger is a mobile, aggressive hooker who is also most decidedly a self-starter.

“Eric went to Australia for a semester last year and came back a much improved rugby player,” said Midwest all-star coach Ron Bowers. “He has worked very hard on his hooker skills – his throwing, his strike in the scrum, and his scrimmaging – and it shows. He is very fit and has a phenomenal attitude.”

A late injury addition to the All Americans Barrett, whose college team doesn’t even have a coach, is grabbing his opportunity with both hands and earned a start on Friday.

Katzfey was a U19 Eagle, but has gone through his college career not playing any rugby at all. Katzfey was the captain of the St. Norbert basketball team this past season and was second-team all-conference.

As a rugby player Katzfey doesn’t play at all until it’s time for the LAU all-star tournament in April. Then he suits up, plays the games, takes the workouts from Bowers, and hopes to make the Midwest team. This he did, got an All American honorable mention nod last year, and on the full squad this year. At 6-6, Katzfey is an impressive lineout option for the All Americans, although to play high level rugby he will likely have to add to his 210 pounds.

And one more Midwesterner is Indiana’s Mike Shepherd. The prop forward was a regular on the USA U20 team, and has relished being immersed in the All American environment. Shepherd was a football player starting in 2nd grade, and added rugby as a high school freshman with Brownsburg in Indiana.

At Indiana University he is the best player on a team that is improving, but still struggles. Even so, Shepherd continues to work on his game.

It was his intelligent passing that helped set up the try that sealed the All American victory on Friday.

We checked with All American head coach Alex Magleby about the idea of finding “diamonds in the rough” among players from non-dominant college teams.

“I know it sounds odd, but I really have no idea what schools the players are from at this point,” Magleby said. “Everyone in the starting XV earned the right to be on the field Friday. I think diamonds in the rough are up to what the guys decide to do with their careers over the next few months and subsequent years. Most are the brand of athlete that if they go about their improvements with deliberate practice, focus each day, and with a vision they can be successful international rugby players. That requires certain choices to be made each day over time.”

If you look at Barrett, Katzfey and Shepherd, you see three players who have looked past their immediate rugby situations to not only make themselves better, but become key parts of the USA’s collegiate national team.

- Alex Goff


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