By Team Historian: Brice Fritts
In the beginning, a struggling artist and former RMU athlete named Matthew DeBarr was commissioned to paint beer murals on the walls of Moon Pop and Beer, located across the street from the soon-to-be renamed Robert Morris College. While putting on his best Michelangelo impression, DeBarr stumbled upon a foreign object that looked like an over-inflated football lying in the storage room. He would take that ball to the owner and inquire of its strange shape and seemingly miraculous powers that it possessed. The next few weeks turned into story time at the beer store where the owner (Frank) handed down his fabled stories of a sport called rugby that was played by 15 brutish men. Frank had played for the Pittsburgh Harlequins, a local men’s club for several years.
DeBarr was amazed by the stories and realized that he too wanted to partake in such mischief and in all of his mighty wisdom he thought that the new Robert Morris “University” could use a rugby team, so he went out recruiting a group of fellow students to get involved. With Frank’s help and the Harlequins backing, an organizational meeting was held with the recruiting coordinator of the Harlequins, Chip Lenzi, making the presentation. He spoke to the group of young men about the game of rugby and of all the glory that would come. There were about 18 people who showed up for that first meeting and later that week the group had decided to go to a Harlequins practice to see if their interest was true.
About 10 greenhorns traveled to Polish Hill that Thursday to practice with the Quins. After being pummeled that first practice in the spring of 2002, the team was taken to the local rugger watering hole where the Harlequins opened their arms to this bunch of newly found rugby enthusiasts and welcomed them with more stories of toughness and tomfoolery. After that practice it was decided that these few would try to become a club sport at Robert Morris. That group would later go on to become known as the team’s founding fathers.
This small band of recruits decided to push the idea along and set up a meeting with the administration. So DeBarr and Fritts, (two washed-up football players); a wannabe ultimate fighter (Chris Tully) and a guy who drove a BMW (Juice) teamed up with Chip, (who had offered to be the club coach) and Bill Schildnecht, then President of the Harlequins RFA and met with Dean Mikalenko and his staff to discuss the possibilities.
At the end of the fabled meeting, the Robert Morris University Rugby Football Club was established and initially given $3000 dollars to buy uniforms and equipment and $2000 per each year afterward. Practices and games were to be played on the Intramural field (which is now the Maintenance Shed) with the possibility of playing on the practice field at the North Athletic Complex. There was much rejoicing within what is now known as the “dirty dozen.”
Over the summer of 2002, plans were put in place to begin the team, with officers being selected and entrance into the Allegheny Rugby Union being finalized. Several players who were around during the summer practiced and played with the Harlequins to better understand their new game.
Summer practices were actually held twice a week where the team could practice solely as an RMU unit. It was here that the rugby team pulled a coup and got local high school “Hooker” Dave Zalewski to abandon his dreams of playing college hockey for RMU and join the Rugby Club instead. Having someone with actual game experience only helped to infuse the team with more rugby know-how, which would prove to be critical come their first game…
When rugby began at RMU, there was talk of what the nickname of the team should be. Other college teams had different mascots than the official moniker the schools typically used: UPJ was the Farm Apes, IUP was the Tooters, California: The Roosterheads. It was only natural to think that Robert Morris would also share in this time honored tradition.
From the first practice, the Harlequins wished to put their stamp on the team and asked the club to name itself the Robert Morris Harlequins as this would be an extension of the Pittsburgh team. The officers decided they wanted to be their own separate entity, but they kept very close ties with the “parent club” who donated their time, coaches, and goal posts and later the teams very first scrum sled.
The school made it a must that the team would carry the official mascot of Robert Morris: The Colonial. This was a big point to the school, as funding depended on it. In its official capacity, the rugby club nickname is in fact the Colonials. For all uniforms, the RMU logo had to be included with the words “Colonials” posted below the Domer logo. The same held true for any apparel purchased with school money (t-shirts for the second season had no reference to Domers). But to the team’s first fifteen, an “alternate” moniker was desired.
As the team began to practice together, which they did on the front lawn in front of the student center, they would begin to think of ideas for their very own team club nickname. Going on during this exact same time frame was the transition from college to university status and the big question on campus involved school logos. RMC had one logo, which was the letters surrounded by stars. There was no actual “Colonial” that went on athletic uniforms. The University transition brought a new logo: an RMU topped with the dome from the student center and “Colonials” underneath. This logo was placed on the basketball court and all athletic apparel. The football helmets, instead of having a person on it, would have a dome.
The student paper, Chalk Talk, said it made us look like the “fighting student centers.” No one in the athletic community liked the fact that the official school logo was the athletic logo as well. In recent years, this has been changed because there was no athletic identity.
So at one practice, when the subject came up, Clint Prosperi made the comment that they “put the dome on everything, so why don’t we just call ourselves the ‘Domers’?” And the name stuck. It was a knock on the official school logo, which suited everyone just fine.
In August, the newly formed Domers opened up summer practice. Since many of the players were former football players, the idea to have two-a-day practices began. In the morning, practices were more drill and conditioning oriented. In the evening, there was team practice. Chip and Mark Connelly coached the team that year. Chris Tully and Brice Fritts shared the captain duties for that fall season. The first game was a big one, which would determine if Robert Morris played in the Division 2 or 3 bracket of the ARU. This matchup was against Pitt-Johnstown. The Domers traveled to Johnstown for the match in a business like fashion.
Although the game was sloppy, there were several highlights from a young and inexperienced team lead by the first ever Domer Man of the Match – Christopher Tully. Tully accounted for 26 points that day and in his greatest highlight he took the ball from the scrumhalf behind the halfway line and went 60 meters for a try. But at the half, the score was a very close 17-10 in favor of Robert Morris.
Though a close score in the first half, the game quickly changed in the second and the nail in the coffin for UPJ became the knowledge the Domers had obtained while playing with the Pittsburgh Harlequins the previous summer. With the game starting to slip away, a penalty kick for touch turned the game into a route because the Farm Apes failed to run down the field as they lacked the know-how of our youngest, but most experienced player Dave Zelewski, who sprinted down to pass the ball in (without a lineout being set) to Brice Fritts who ran down after him and scored a try, untouched.
Tully would later set up for a drop kick from 20 meters out that took the wind out of the Farm Ape’s sails for good that day and the Domers never looked back, trouncing UPJ 41-20 in their inaugural game.
The rest of the season saw its highs and lows. The Domers didn’t win another game versus an ARU opponent, but played admirably against the Midwest Sweet Sixteen qualifier University of Pittsburgh (losing 25-12), and West Virginia (losing 10-6). They would eventually find themselves facing Division III allocation pitting them against Grove City during the last game of the season. But Robert Morris would go on to defeat the Wolverines and kept their status at Division II for the following year and ended their first season on a high note.