From the ground up: UCSC Men's Rugby finishes historic season

Volunteer rugby coaches elevate UCSC Men’s Rugby team to D1A national standing

UCSC Rugby coaches from left to right: Marcus Viscardi, Jeremy Sanford, and Simon Nicholls at a rugby game against California State University, Long Beach on April 8, 2023 
UCSC’s Banana Slugs go head-to-head against Cal State Long Beach
UCSC coach Guido Bordignon talks to players during San Jose State University vs. UCSC game half-time

Rugby was the first sport to arrive at UC Santa Cruz in 1967. Coached first by Ron Ruby and then by Dave Dorfan, both professors in physics who volunteered their time to coaching, the team slowly made its way to competing against other universities with great success. 

Now over five decades later, the UCSC Men’s Rugby Club is coached by five men—three of whom are academic faculty— who helped elevate the Banana Slugs to D1A status for the first time in the team’s history. As the dust settles on their inaugural season, the team demonstrated they belong in D1A. Wins over UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara highlighted a competitive season in the D1A California Conference.

“I think we played some really fantastic rugby at different points in the season,” said UCSC Men’s Rugby Head Coach Jeremy Sanford. “The first 40 minutes of our final match against SDSU, being a great example of our style of play. We learned a lot about ourselves this season and have a better understanding of areas to build on going into next year.”   

Sanford added that the UCSC players were the ones who ultimately made the decision to play at the D1A level with the coaches full support.

“I think moving to D1A was the right decision for the team,” said coach Marcus Viscardi. “In matches this season with the top teams from the D1AA California Conference, we defeated Fresno State and Sacramento State by large margins. The team has a different mindset now.” 

Sanford, Viscardi, Patrick Halpin, Guido Bordignon, and Simon Nicholls are the coaches of the team, all of whom emphasized the competitive success of the season is a result of the players’ passion. 

The inclusive and hard-working culture of rugby known worldwide takes center stage on UCSC’s Rugby team. The players’ ability to push one another and strive for excellence set them up for success in their D1 debut, fighting to the bitter end for their wins against other universities.

The incredibly rigorous sport breeds an unbreakable culture. 

“You can’t survive on a rugby field without a high level of personal integrity,” Nicholls said. “You have to commit, you have to expose yourself, you have to perform, and you’ve got to pull your weight. Rugby sorts people out, and the ones who can’t do that will get left by the wayside, and the other guys will galvanize around a culture that breeds excellence and personal integrity. We see kids come into UC Santa Cruz at 18 years old, and by the time they leave, they’re different people.” 

Going international and looking ahead

Taking UCSC’s Rugby teams outside of the country has been a dream of rugby coaches and alumni for years, and soon, it’s becoming a reality. 

With the help of rugby alumni and the UCSC global engagement office, the UCSC Rugby Team will play against the University of Padova in Italy in the Summer of 2024. Recently celebrating its 800th anniversary, The University of Padova is one of the world’s most historic and renowned universities. The match between UCSC and the University of Padova celebrates a newfound friendship between the two universities, both of whom share achievements and recognition in biomedical sciences, astronomy, and rugby. 

UCSC Coach Bordignon is an alumnus of the University of Padova and is grateful for the opportunity for the Banana Slugs to play against a prestigious rugby team. 

“This opportunity to have such a significant cultural experience as a young person is one that many of the players would otherwise never have; most of them never left the country and/or are the first college generation in their families,” Bordignon said. “Thinking that my alma mater [University of Padova], UC Santa Cruz, and rugby are now connected for the players as well, and the influence that this experience will have on their futures, gives me such profound joy.”

With two matches remaining, The UCSC Men’s Rugby team has their sights set on a winning record in their inaugural D1 seasons. Regardless of the outcome, the team’s performance this season is likely to send a message. 

“UCSC is on people’s radar; we’re in the rugby media quite a lot,” Sanford said. “Everybody loves the Banana Slugs, so we get a lot of contact from high school students. Since we announced the move to D1, we’ve been attracting talented, intellectually driven rugby players here.” 

Visit the rugby team's crowdfuding page to support both the men's and women's rugby teams in their future endeavors. 

Jeremy Sanford

Jeremy Sanford has coached rugby at UCSC for 14 years and is the team’s head coach. A molecular, cellular, and developmental (MCD) biology professor at UCSC, Sanford’s lab studies messenger RNA biogenesis and expression. He is interested in how aberrant mRNA biogenesis contributes to disease and is designing drugs to correct problematic RNA in cells. 

He emphasizes the importance of having a passion and a team to commit to while being a student at UCSC and often encourages his biology students to try out for the team. Sanford says it helps to teach in one of the most popular majors on campus where he meets a lot of students.

“Over the years I realized there are many parallels between rugby and science,” he said. “The heart of both endeavors is to go forward and attack gaps. Perhaps most importantly, both disciplines require commitment and resilience. I doubt I would have been as successful in research without some of the values that I picked up from rugby.”

Sanford began playing rugby late in his college years at Case Western Reserve University  Cleveland, Ohio. After completing his Ph.D., he moved to Edinburgh, Scotland to pursue post-doctoral research and rugby. 

“There were seven clubs within walking distance of my lab and upon joining Edinburgh Northern Rugby Football Club, I was instantly connected to a diverse group of players from all over the world,” Sanford said. “The season spanned the majority of the year. For an American like me, it was like earning an advanced degree in Rugby.”

He says he is appreciative of the rugby players for their dedication and is grateful to the other coaches for their leadership. 

“I’m so proud of the effort the students put in. They work really hard balancing training and their studies. Everyone of our players wants to leave the team in a better position than when they joined it. That kind of commitment is why we can punch well-above our weight.”

Patrick Halpin 

Patrick Halpin had a rugby ball in his hand the day he was born. Born and raised in Kilkenny, Ireland, Halpin’s relationship with rugby is written into his DNA. His father was the president of a local rugby club, and his brothers played the game. Halpin attended a boarding school where he played rugby, and after he finished school, he played club rugby in London and New York. 

When he moved to California in the 90s, he assumed his rugby career was coming to an end. In 2003 Halpin suffered a brain injury. 

After getting encouragement from friends and family, Halpin looked for a way to get back involved in the sport that defined most of his life. He found the Banana Slugs in 2013, and now ten years later, Halpin says coaching the team significantly helped with his recovery, and he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. 

“UCSC Rugby has helped me so much with my personal growth and development,” Halpin said. “These guys are good students and are coming down and putting the effort in. Some days, the players were getting up at six in the morning and practicing, motivating me to get up and do something as well. It has very much helped me to grow as a person.”

Simon Nicholls 

After playing rugby for over 20 years in the UK and Canada—including two seasons with the Bristol Bears—Simon Nicholls knew he wanted to stay connected to the sport when he moved to Santa Cruz. He has been a coach at UCSC for six years and serves as the D1A Conference Commissioner. 

Nicholls says he is proud of the growth of UCSC’s rugby team over the years and its growing culture. 

“It’s a very inclusive culture, and it is one where you have to pull your weight,” Nicholls said. “You have to show personal integrity, you have to show commitment, and then you’ll survive and thrive in a fabulous environment.”

Guido Bordignon 

Guido Bordignon is a professor of MCD biology at UCSC and has coached rugby at the university for four years. Bordignon’s research focuses on active learning pedagogy, inclusive teaching, scientific teaching practices, and gamification of the classroom. 

Bordignon and Sanford were awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 2022 for their work in faculty-led labs offering course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) in the MCD Biology Department.

Bordignon grew up in Padova, one of the main cities in Northeast Italy, where rugby is a very popular game that he played since he was a kid. He played for the local team with which he won many national championships and played internationally at the junior level. He began coaching rugby at UCSC four years ago and is proud to be a Banana Slug. 

“I am focused on mentorship of undergraduate students to support them with their confidence and growth during their college years,” Bordignon said. “Having been myself a student athlete, I know the power that high-level team sports can have on their holistic development. I find it rewarding to invest in their growth both on and off the field.

Marcus Viscardi 

Marcus Viscardi is a Ph.D. candidate in the MCD Biology department. He studies messenger RNA quality control mechanisms and mRNA translation and has been coaching rugby at UCSC for four years. Previously, Viscardi was a co-captain of the St. Mary’s rugby team—a highly competitive collegiate team.

“Rugby is a very hard game to walk away from once you get involved in the culture and the people,” Viscardi said. “It’s crazy how much of my life it’s made up, and so when I started my Ph.D. at UCSC, I wanted to play, but there were no men’s teams around. I started showing up to the practices here with the UCSC guys and got involved in the team.”