Rugby ‘opened up a whole new world’ for Holyoke’s Mike Nuñez at nationals-bound Endicott

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 04-27-2023 6:14 PM

Mike Nuñez sat on his Endicott dorm bed and wondered.

His roommate Joseph Matteo had just left for another event with the Gulls men’s rugby team. The sport was unfamiliar, but he understood that camaraderie. Longed for it.

“What would that feel like to be a part of a team again?” Nuñez said. “I missed the feeling.”

The Holyoke native originally chose the Beverly school because it recruited him to play football. He spent his senior season in 2019 as a cornerback and wide receiver for Chicopee Comp after beginning his high school career at Holyoke.

Nuñez opted not to play football once he arrived in Endicott, but that left a hole.

“Freshman and sophomore year I was just doing nothing. I was tired of being lazy,” he said. “I came to a practice and loved what I saw. I missed the contact and being a part of a team.”

He joined the program for his junior year in 2021. The coaches made him a flanker, back-row forwards who compete for the ball and assist in scrums — set pieces when groups of opposing forwards force their heads and shoulders together and the ball is rolled between them — but can detach quickly once the ball exits to chase opponents or support their own team in carrying the ball. Nuñez operates in space, handles the ball and makes tackles, utilizing the skills he honed on a football field.

“You are the person tracking down the one with the ball and chasing, making sure that the offense isn’t gaining ground on the field, and he has been a big stalwart on our team because of that,” Endicott associate head coach Mike Natasi said. “Mike exemplifies everything you’re looking for in a rugby player. He just doesn’t have the experience.”

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Nuñez relied on instinct when the staff threw him into his first game. He knew his objective was to make as many tackles as he could.

“Trial by fire. It took me about a month to understand my role,” Nuñez said.

His parents, Michael Nuñez and Melissa Paniagua Nuñez, were initially hesitant, not knowing much about the sport, but ultimately encouraged it — especially his dad, who pushed him to try new things and explore.

“Not a lot of people like me play rugby. That was a deciding factor,” Nuñez said.

The NCAA doesn’t sponsor rugby, so the sport organizes under the NCR banner. It hosts conferences and championship. Teams play 15s in the fall, which features 15 players a side and is a more physical game than the speedy 7s in the spring, which debuted at the 2016 Rio Olympics, which is contested on the same sized pitch and includes more space and scoring.

“The good thing about rugby is it’s really meant for everyone. And no matter what sporting background you come from, there are areas on the rugby pitch that will exemplify your strengths to whatever sport you were doing prior,” Natasi said.

Players participate on both sides of the ball like soccer. Endicott favors players who can defend and keep opponents from scoring, which creates opportunities in transition.

That philosophy has helped create one of the best programs in the country. The Gulls went 36-8-1 last season and reached the National Collegiate Rugby Northeast Regional Final during the 15s season in the fall and placed fourth in the spring NCR nationals 7s tournament.

“It’s something built, I’m not saying because of me, but since I’ve been here it took off,” Nuñez said. “I’ve never won anything my whole high school career. It’s a different feeling.”

Endicott is 32-3 this season and ranked No. 3 entering the NCR spring 7s nationals tournament. The Gulls placed third in 15s and are coming off a Colonial Coast Conference title. Pool play begins Friday in Washington, D.C., where Endicott will face the Colorado School of Mines at 9 a.m. Games will be broadcats on YouTube and the Rugby Network.

“There’s been a few years we’ve made nationals prior this senior class, but since Mike has been here we’ve won our conference championship four or five times, made nationals three times. These guys make it an everyday type of occurrence,” Natasi said. “We’re looking to take that next step and win that championship.”

However the weekend goes, rugby won’t leave Nuñez’s life. The sports management major has considered working in the sport or joining a men’s club.

“It took me to New Orleans, took me to Houston. The opportunity that rugby has given me is amazing. I’ve made so many connections. I don’t think I would have traveled to any of those places. It’s opened a whole new world for me, rugby,” he said. ” There’s plenty of opportunities to continue rugby, and I think I’m gonna do it.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.]]>