CWU rugby programs believe there's no ‘I’ in ‘Team’

CWU rugby programs believe there's no ‘I’ in ‘Team’

When building a college athletic program, success begins with a winning culture.

Sure, talent is important. But without the right personnel—that is, players who possess the character traits to complement their on-field acumen—it’s difficult to separate yourself from the pack.

Since transitioning from a club sport to the varsity ranks in 2014-15, both CWU rugby programs have wholeheartedly embraced a team-first philosophy—one that challenges every individual to put the success of the program ahead of their own.

As a result, the Wildcat men and women are now competing alongside the best rugby teams in the country as a member of the Division IA (men) and Division I Elite (women) conferences.

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CWU rugby players like Shaylee Coulter-Fa'amafu build friendships "that are going to be for a lifetime."

“The difference with our program now, compared to when it started, is we decided to build a ‘we culture,’” said men’s head coach Todd Thornley, who took over the program the year it shifted from club status to a university-funded activity. “If you play for us, it’s ‘we before me.’ At CWU, we believe that’s what rugby is all about.”

Thornley explained that he and his coaching staff have spent the past eight years building a culture where everyone is willing to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of the team. They have created an atmosphere where every player feels like their individual contributions are valued and appreciated.

“We want everyone on our team to feel comfortable being themselves,” said Thornley, a native of New Zealand who came to Ellensburg as a graduate assistant in 2014. “They each bring their own influences and flavors to the team, and that’s what makes our program so special. We truly value every individual.”

The same cultural dynamics are at play with the CWU women’s rugby squad. Head coach Matthew Ramirez isn’t only looking for the best on-field athletes (although he has recruited plenty); he’s seeking players who possess the intangibles required to win at the highest level.

“The biggest things we recruit for are character traits and skill sets, not just raw talent,” Ramirez said. “For me, the most important thing is, can you be a good teammate? We bring in players who can be culture-drivers; people who can help us create standards and hold others accountable.”

Ramirez’s job also involves developing leaders on and off the field. Identifying individuals who can inspire others to achieve their potential is just as important as bringing in players who can make big plays.

“A big part of winning is having elite players, but we’re looking for a certain kind of profile here,” said Ramirez, who took over the program in 2021-22 after serving as a graduate assistant for three seasons. “If we’re going to win a national championship, it’s going to take everyone. To get there, we need young women who are willing to step up and encourage their teammates to do extra training and stay up on their studies.”

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He explained that it’s not about nagging their teammates or pulling people along; more often than not, it comes down to having honest conversations about how everyone can pull their own weight so the team can be successful.

Players who can step into that role don’t come along every day, but CWU has had enough of them in recent years that more young players are awaiting their chance to take on a new level of responsibility.

“We can build skill set; it’s much more difficult to build mindset,” Ramirez said. “What we do here is bring in the right profile of players who can help us grow the culture. When you’re trying to build a national championship program, you have to be selfless. And when you find players who understand the ‘we over me’ mentality, like we’ve been able to do, that’s what makes the world go ‘round.”

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Building Leaders

Two prime examples of athletes who learned to accept leadership roles in the women’s program are 2023 national player of the year Keia Mae Sagapolu Sanele, and this season’s senior team captain, Tessa Hann, who was nominated for the same award this spring.

Neither of them knew they would become star players when they signed with Central, but over time, Sagapolu and Hann assumed the leadership mantle and evolved into more well-rounded players and people.

“I had to learn to become a leader, but once I learned who I was and what I wanted to get out of my time at Central, I started to find my voice,” said Hann, a Denver native who also plays for the under-23 U.S. national team. “I just like to work hard and set a positive example for others. I think the biggest thing for me was just learning to be myself and backing up my words with my actions.”

That individual identity is something Ramirez and Thornley preach to their players all the time, whether they’re established team leaders or unproven underclassmen still looking to make their mark.

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Hann said the thing she appreciates most about the CWU program during her five years—and even before she chose to come to Ellensburg—is the family atmosphere, complemented by a high level of shared accountability.

“The friendships you’re going to make here are going to be for a lifetime, but you’re also going to have to work extremely hard,” she said. “What’s been so great is that we’re all on the same page. We’re all really competitive, but in a healthy way, unlike some other programs. I feel like the culture we have built here truly sets us apart.”

Like Hann, Sagapolu joined the roster as a tentative freshman, unsure of what her role might be someday. But, as time went on, the now-professional prop for the Leicester Tigers in England learned how to be the kind of player others look up to.

“It wasn’t until my last year at Central that I truly made my mark,” said Sagapolu, who grew up in Tacoma. “My first year was pretty rough, but once I started to understand the game better, I was able to help the team more. Everything I learned from my coaches and older teammates eventually rubbed off on me, and I was able to take my game to the next level.”

One of the main reasons Sagapolu chose to come to Central was former head coach Trevor Richards. The two have remained in contact since his departure after the 2020-21 season, and Richards lent his support as Sagapolu pursued opportunities with professional clubs and the U.S. national team. He even visited Sagapolu in England last fall when she began playing in the Women’s Rugby Premiership.

Sagapolu looks back on her relationships with Richards and Ramirez as being key to her development as a person and as an athlete.

“Central gave me a chance, and I will never forget that,” she said. “It feels good to know you have people behind you doing the little things to help you succeed. My CWU coaches have always been there for me, and I will forever appreciate everything they’ve done for me. No matter how far I go in my career, I will always remember my roots.”

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The men's rugby program has built a family atmosphere, where everyone puts the team's interests before their own.

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Relationships Are Key

The close-knit atmosphere that has come to define the women’s program mirrors that of their male counterparts. Thornley explained that it all starts with building and nurturing lasting relationships.

That’s especially true when you have a program the size of CWU’s. By maintaining a roster of 30 to 35—compared to lineups twice that size on other Division IA rosters—every Wildcat knows they have a crucial role to play. This dynamic provides players and coaches with bonding opportunities that they may not otherwise have with larger programs.

“I get to know every athlete very well, and they get to know me,” Thornley said. “They understand they are part of something bigger than themselves, and for our team to be successful, we need them just as much as they need us.”

One of this season’s team leaders, Calvin Liulamaga, looks back on the mentorship he received from Thornley as being pivotal toward his future success. Before ever stepping on the field for the Wildcats, the Auburn High School graduate felt a genuine connection to his coach and the program.

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“I lost my brother the summer before my freshman year, and I had to leave for college a month later,” said Liulamaga, a senior who earned All-American honors for the Wildcats in 2022-23. “My first quarter at Central was really hard, but Todd was always by my side, encouraging me to keep going. He played a big role in me coming here, but also in me deciding to stay here all four years.”

It didn’t take long for Liulamaga to jump into the starting lineup. During his freshman season, a veteran player at his position was forced to sit out a few games. Liulamaga made the most of his opportunity, and he never looked back.

“Todd saw my potential and stayed with me,” he said. “He believed in me, and we’ve been on the same page ever since.”

Liulamaga explained that isn’t just what he has been able to achieve on the field that has kept him engaged. The rich culture that has come to define the Wildcat program continues to be both empowering and invigorating for everyone on the roster.

“It’s such a good environment here,” he said. “Our team is really tight-knit on and off the field. I see how hard guys work for each other, and that’s something I’ve always admired about this team. I would do anything for these guys.”

Liulamaga conceded that he doesn’t know where he would be without the support of Thornley and his teammates.

In many ways, CWU rugby changed his life.

“This school and this program gave me life again, and I owe it all to Todd and my boys,” Liulamaga said. “They set me up for success on and off the field, and I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else.”

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Two former CWU stars now playing in the pros:


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