By AJ HOWARD
The right recruit can make all the difference for a college sports team, especially a fledgling club team searching for respect.
When Derek Bartlow, a junior flanker from Marietta, Ga., selected Kennesaw State University over national rugby power Life University, it was representative of the progress the young club was making.
“The coaching staff made all the difference,” Bartlow said. “I went to a KSU camp and was really impressed with the quality of the program.”
Bartlow’s athletic ability was verified during his senior year of high school, when a football coach from James Madison offered him a place as a defensive end on sight. While flattered, Bartlow’s eyes were set on rugby and KSU in particular.
Injuries forced Bartlow into limited duty his freshman season, but he rebounded quickly by winning the team’s Most Valuable Player as a sophomore. Bartlow’s four awards from his KSU career sit proudly on his bedroom wall.
Bartlow’s arrival on campus impressed many, including his teammates.
“Derek really integrated himself well into the side,” said the rugby club’s president, Ridge Meracle, who came to KSU the same season Bartlow did. “He was a huge part of our 2011 class.”
That 2011 class is one that came along at a perfect time for the budding Owls. KSU men’s rugby club began in 2005, and the next eight years saw the program rise to the South Independent Rugby Conference’s top division. The Owls even qualified for the division playoffs in 2012.
Rugby’s success at KSU has even led to the sport hosting global events in Fifth Third Bank Stadium. The International Rugby Board’s Women’s Sevens World Series took place on Feb. 15 and 16, and a 2015 Rugby World Cup qualifier between the United States and Uruguay is scheduled for March 29.
KSU’s rising profile in the rugby community also led the USA South team to conduct tryouts at the school’s sports and recreation park. Bartlow took part, and although he didn’t qualify for the full team, he did earn a spot on the U-20 team.
While Bartlow enjoyed the different colleges and areas of the South that descended on Kennesaw, he was more focused on the on-field aspect of it all. Bartlow said the tryout really prepared him for the coming season.
“It was a great opportunity to play with experienced rugby players,” Bartlow said. “I’ll definitely try out again next year.”
After the USA South tryouts, Bartlow and the rest of the Owls turned their focus to the season. The squad opened up the 2014 spring campaign with a 52-7 victory over Georgia Tech. The win over Tech signified revenge for the Owls, because the Yellow Jackets won last season’s finale to go to the playoffs.
As for the rest of the season, Bartlow bases his optimism on the fact they’ve already defeated last season’s top teams from the division, Middle Tennessee State and Georgia Tech.
“Were hoping to stay healthy and make it to the playoffs,” Bartlow said.
Bartlow’s goal will require the Owls to rebound from a 2013 that saw them miss out on the playoffs. Despite missing a game due to inclement weather, the Owls are 2-0 on the season.
Bartlow and the KSU rugby team returned to the field at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, 2014, against Memphis. The two teams are tied for first place in the northern division of the South Independent Rugby Conference with five points each.
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