A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Rugby’s rise to national prominence at Thomas More University

By Raymond G. Hebert, PhD
Thomas More University

In 2015, not long after David Armstrong arrived on campus as the new President of Thomas More, he proposed a strategy for expanding the number of sports available for student-athletes. Many that he mentioned — such as Lacrosse, bowling, and track—were known locally but the biggest surprise was rugby.

Rugby Head Coach John Fox. Coach Fox is currently in his eighth season as coach. (Courtesy of Stephen Oldfield)

Armstrong had been part of the creation of a successful rugby program at his previous institution, Notre Dame College of Cleveland, and believed that it would transport well since the only rugby programs in the Greater Cincinnati/Kentucky areas were at larger institutions like the University of Kentucky, Xavier University, and the University of Cincinnati.

Many people were skeptical and some even laughed since so little was known about its rules/exciting plays, but President Armstrong was serious. He hired two local activists and well-respected coaches in the Greater Cincinnati rugby community named John Fox and Al Lucas, who would bring the team to great heights and in the process, play a significant role in the recruitment of international student-athletes with experience on rugby teams outside of the US.

Lucas would step down as coach to focus on being President of the Midwest Rugby Union, which governs teams in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas. This was shortly before the pandemic and the hiring of Coach Fox was followed by the pulling together of a hybrid team of domestic and international players that, on the one hand, provided a distraction from the difficulties of managing a university athletic program during a pandemic.

Damon Jones, the Rugby team’s first captain and second recruit to originally sign in 2016. He was captain for three years. He went on to play a key role as assistant head coach during the 2021 National Championship Run. (Courtesy of John Fox)

In the peak year of 2021, the Rugby Team had an incredible season, only losing one competition to Division I power University of Kentucky. On Sunday, December 12, 2021, in Houston Texas, little Thomas More University’s rugby program defeated Adrian College to win the Division II National Championship.

Leading Thomas More’s team during that upset championship win was graduate student Matias Caramuti (Rio Cuarto, Cordoba, Argentina), who converted three field goals and one extra point for 10 of the Saints’ 21 points. Also spectacular throughout was Bautista Saint Bonnet, a first-year student who was given the National Championship Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award. It is significant that Adrian College had been ranked number one in the league and had a roster filled with much bigger players.

In Coach Fox’s words, though: “We were the underdog but we’re a team that could adapt . . . to win, we did all the little things that were needed to succeed and again it comes down to making a difference (Lyna Kelley, “Thomas More University Rugby Program Scores First Ever National Championship,” Moreover, December 13, 2021).

Alejandro Torres, Tomas Casares, Matias Caramuti, Bautista Saint Bonnet. All four players were instrumental during their time on the Thomas More Rugby team. (Courtesy of Stephen Oldfield) 

Significantly, the team and Coach Fox did not rest on their laurels after that remarkable 2021 season. Instead, they moved up a level in the National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) world to Division I since they were already competing well against those teams anyway, and even in the first year at that level (2022) made it to the National Semifinals, finishing 4th in the nation during the season and qualifying for the 2023 Sevens National Championship.

Meanwhile, as always, Coach Fox emphasized the importance of the players in his comments about those two teams. First, he highlighted Damon Jones, the original team’s first Captain and second recruit to originally sign in 2016 who “was our Captain for three years before staying on as Assistant Head Coach in 2021 for our National Championship Run. He now works for Fidelity as a Broker Manager” (Notes from Coach John Fox, November 13, 2023). Also to be singled out for contributions to the 2021 National Championship Team were: Thomas Casares as a Division II All-American. He and several others were Academic All-Americans in 2021 and/or 2022. They included: Tomas Casares and Matias Caramuti in 2021, and Luca Mattassinni, Sam Ray, Ta’Veon Veal and Manuel Zubiri in 2022. Two other major contributors were Alejandro Torres and Hudson Montgomery, who was a four-year Captain and was awarded the All-American Status twice: 2021 D2 All-American and 2022 D1 All-American.

In August 2022, Alejandro Torres, at the end of that championship season, was drafted into the second round of the Major League Rugby draft. Courtesy of National College Rugby)

In terms of the 2022 team’s success, the ultimate recognition came when two of its players were drafted in the second round of Major League Rugby’s Annual Draft: “Tomas Casares as the #17 pick to the New England Free Jacks (traded in 2023 to the Miami Sharks) and Matias Caramuti as the #20 pick to the Dallas Jackals (Coach John Fox).

Looking back, Coach Fox had said, in anticipating success: “When we recruit players for our team, we ask them what they want their legacy to be,” adding that “our legacy at Thomas More for the Saints rugby team is to make a difference, whether it’s on the field, in the classroom, or in the community. We are a team of scholar-athletes and we don’t look at ourselves as a team but as a family” (Moreover, December 13, 2021).

In 2021, freshman Bautista Saint Bonnet was given the National Championship MVP award. (Courtesy of Stephen Oldfield)

Coach Fox’s consistent message is clear, at practices, games, the chalk talk session that he attended with three of his players, and all the way to the aftermath of a national championship game: “We are a family”; “we strive to make a difference.” Back to the post-game excitement of that historic win in 2021, Coach Fox had taken those themes one step further when he emphasized that the players never gave up: “They thought it was their legacy to win this game. They wanted to prove their legacy to do something for the University and to make sure that we get Thomas More on the map. I think they were successful in that” (Moreover, December 13, 2021).

Terry Connor, Thomas More’s Athletic Director, proudly praised the team in the days and weeks that followed that historic occasion for bringing this recognition to Thomas More: “Taking the NCR Division II National Championship title is the perfect ending to an outstanding year (2021) for the team; a true testament to the hard work and dedication they have put forward. The Rugby team has exemplified the passion and commitment to excellence that we strive for as Thomas More University Saints” (Moreover, December 13, 2021). Coach Fox’s dreams met Athletic Director Connor’s reality in December 2021.

Hudson Montgomery before he carried three Northern Iowa players into the try zone for an exciting scoring try during the 2021 semifinal match. (Courtesy of National College Rugby)

Worth mentioning is the role played for the team by Communication Department faculty member Steve Oldfield who served as the team’s Faculty Liaison to Athletic Teams (FLAT), videographer, and photographer. Some of his photos accompany this article.

As a fitting ending to that championship season in August of 2022, Alejandro Torres from Argentina made Thomas More University Rugby even better known as he (only in his sophomore season) was drafted in the second round of the Major League Rugby draft. He joins his two colleagues from 2021 and the select few over the 100+ years of sports at VMC/TMC/TMU to be drafted by a professional sports organization (Major League Rugby Draft Statistics 2022).

Matias Caramuti during the November 8, 2021 match against Marian College. (Courtesy of Stephen Oldfield) 

Not surprisingly, 2023 has also been a strong year as the team again came together with enough timely wins to qualify for a National College Rugby Bowl game in Houston, Texas. While they were defeated in the Conference semifinals by Principia University, they bounced back to defeat Marian University of Indianapolis 41-31 to earn the bid. The Saints are excited for the incoming players who have committed for the spring and fall of 2024 to continue the success for the program.

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He is the leading author of Thomas More University at 100: Purpose, People, and Pathways to Student Success (2023). The book can be purchased by contacting the Thomas More University Bookstore at 859-344-3335. Dr. Hebert can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Editor of the “Our Rich History” weekly series and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He also serves as Director of the ORVILLE Project (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment), as well as Editor of the forthcoming ORVIE (Ohio River Valley Innovation Explorer), premiering in Summer 2024. ORVIE is now recruiting authors for entries on all aspects of innovation in the Ohio River Watershed including: Cincinnati (OH) and Northern Kentucky; Ashland, Lexington, Louisville, Maysville, Owensboro and Paducah (KY); Columbus, Dayton, Marietta, Portsmouth, and Steubenville (OH); Evansville, Madison and Indianapolis (IN), Pittsburgh (PA), Charleston, Huntington, Parkersburg, and Wheeling (WV), Cairo (IL), and Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville (TN). If you would like to be involved in ORVILLE or ORVIE, please contact Paul Tenkotte at tenkottep@nku.edu.

Tomas Casares played a major role during the 2021 National Championship run as a Division II All-American. In 2022 he was the #17 pick to the New England Free Jacks. (Courtesy of Stephen Oldfield)

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