At 6-4 and 225 pounds, Alex MacDonald looks like a perfect combination of tight end and linebacker — which is exactly what he played during his football career at Hilton Head High School.
“I only played for one season, though,” MacDonald said. “My dad wouldn’t let me play because he was against contact sports.”
No small irony, then, that MacDonald has found his greatest athletic success playing another contact sport — club team rugby at The Citadel. MacDonald, who just graduated from The Citadel with a degree in business administration, is president and team captain of Citadel rugby, which won the Southern Rugby Conference championship this year. The Bulldogs will compete for a national title this weekend at the USA Rugby College 7s Division II national championship in Cary, N.C.
The progress of Citadel rugby has mirrored MacDonald’s own. A four-time all-conference pick, he has been selected to play for the ATAVUS All-Stars, a national development program that puts him on track to compete for a spot on the U.S. national team, the USA Eagles.
Not bad for a guy who had never offloaded a pass or kicked a mulligrubber until he arrived at The Citadel.
“When I came to The Citadel, my senior mentor dragged me out to my first practice,” MacDonald said. “From there, I just fell in love with the game.
“To me, it was like tackle basketball, honestly — the finesse of the game, but at the same time the physicality and brute toughness of it.”
Winless during MacDonald’s freshman year, the Bulldogs defeated Furman, Elon, East Carolina, Charlotte and UNC Wilmington to win the Southern Rugby Conference finals this season. At the Division II nationals, The Citadel will compete with 12 teams, including St. Louis, Tulane, UNC Wilmington and U.S. Coast Guard.
“This team is incredible,” MacDonald said. “I’ve been here four years, and I’ve seen it come from losing every game my knob year to this year, making a run at the national championship.”
Rugby is a club sport at The Citadel, and therefore not one of the eight varsity sports sponsored by the military school. Col. Bill Bell is the team’s coach, ably assisted by Tommy Duffy and Clint Weimann. College rugby is overseen by USA Rugby, not the NCAA.
As members of a club sport, The Citadel’s players are responsible for raising money to finance the team. It usually takes $7,000 to $10,000 to get Citadel rugby through a season, though the Bulldogs’ success this season has pushed the tab closer to $14,000. The club relies heavily on donations from alumni, and also awards $5,000 scholarships to team players. This year’s Citadel rugby scholarship winners include Aaron Moore, a sophomore from Garrett Academy in North Charleston.
Aiden Childs, who just graduated with a degree in chemistry, played football, baseball and track at Fort Dorchester High School. He will begin his career in the U.S. Army in September.
“The difference this year is that the guys have put out 100 percent every day,” Childs said. “A lot of guys have been out to practice and everyone’s been helping each other out. The coaches have really put in a lot of time, and we haven’t always had that in the past. We’ve focused on developing our skills a lot more.”
For many club players, their first exposure to the sport came when they arrived at The Citadel.
“We’ve always had physical talent, and our guys are more conditioned just because of the fact that they are at The Citadel,” said assistant coach Duffy. “The one thing we’ve worked on is coaching them from the shoulders up, getting them more in tune with being rugby smart and raising their rugby IQ.”
Lately, though, Citadel coaches have found more recruits with rugby experience as the sport makes in-roads into high school athletics.
“A lot of our younger players, the freshmen and sophomores, are coming in with four years of rugby experience underneath,” Duffy said. “We are recruiting more people from schools that have rugby teams.”
At least one Citadel player — MacDonald — has a chance to make something of a career in the sport. He’s got offers to play pro rugby in Australia, New Zealand and England, and for the new PRO Rugby league in the U.S. The ultimate goal is to play for USA Eagles in the rugby World Cup.
“It will take a lot of hard work,” MacDonald said. “I’ve been working as hard as I can for four years, and I won’t stop now.”