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National Champ: Joey Pascuzzi

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  • | 4:00 a.m. June 5, 2013
University of Central Florida junior Joey Pascuzzi has three years of eligibility left, after joining the Knights’ rugby team last spring.
University of Central Florida junior Joey Pascuzzi has three years of eligibility left, after joining the Knights’ rugby team last spring.
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LAKEWOOD RANCH — Joey Pascuzzi had no idea what had happened.

He couldn’t see the clock.

After tossing the ball back across the field to one of his teammates, the University of Central Florida lock ended up at the bottom of the pile. But, as he slowly got to his feet, the 2011 Lakewood Ranch High graduate saw his teammates rushing onto the field in celebration.

At that point, reality set in — the Knights had just defeated Lindenwood 27-25 to capture the 2013 Emirates Airline USA Rugby Men’s Collegiate DI-AA National Championship May 12, in Bowling Green, Ohio. It was UCF’s first rugby national championship in school history.

“I was sobbing like a baby,” Pascuzzi says. “It was really indescribable. I’ve been an athlete for a long time and competed all through high school, but I had never had the opportunity to compete at the national level. I just broke down.

“It was great,” he says. “It was the coolest thing to be nationally recognized.”

A former tight end, Pascuzzi picked up rugby in high school, after his best friend and fellow teammate, Kyle Riley-Hawkins, introduced him to the sport. Pascuzzi played for afun a handful of times, but he purposefully turned his attention to the sport last spring.

Looking for something to fill the void after football was behind him, Pascuzzi joined UCF’s rugby team.

Although similar to football in some ways, it took Pascuzzi awhile to learn all of the ins and outs of the game.
“It was hard,” Pascuzzi says. “It’s such an uncommon sport in America, especially in Florida. I didn’t know the game, so I just had to stick with it and not get too down on myself if I did something wrong.”

Pascuzzi eventually learned the rules of the game and, before long, he felt right at home.

“It’s a pretty simple sport compared to football because there aren’t as many rules,” Pascuzzi says. “There’s a lot of leeway. That’s the biggest thing you have to learn. I had to break a lot of habits.

“Rugby is more multi-faceted,” he says. “The bigger guys should be able to run with the ball. You should at least be able to do everything confidently.”

Pascuzzi saw his first live action last summer during UCF’s 7-on-7 season, during which the Knights went 14-1.

“I liked it a lot,” Pascuzzi says. “It’s cool, really, just the novelty of learning a new sport. I improved really quickly, so that made it more fun.”

UCF went on to play in the Florida Cup, which is the main offseason championship. The Knights defeated Florida, USF, Florida Atlantic and Florida International to win the championship and finish the season undefeated.

With the Florida Cup under their belt, Pascuzzi and the Knights began their spring season in the Southern Independent Rugby Conference. UCF defeated rival Florida State to win the conference and advance to the National Round of 16.

“Our goal was to be better than Florida State,” Pascuzzi says. “This year, everything just clicked. We got a new coach. Before, we were a lax team, but this year we did a lot of conditioning in the offseason. Our coach definitely got us to where we were.”

UCF outscored its opponents 126-100 en route to winning its first national title.

“In the Final Four, the teams were not of American descent,” Pascuzzi says. “A lot of the players were from countries where they grew up playing rugby, and we were able to win with all American guys who had never played before college.”

This season proved to be extra special for Pascuzzi and his teammates, who were unable to use their on-campus practice facilities for part of the season and had to raise money to fund their trips.

“We actually had a lot of adversity this season,” Pascuzzi says. “We made it through a lot.”

Now, with his first national championship under his belt, Pascuzzi will return to the field to begin practicing for his second summer season.

“It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Pascuzzi says of joining the rugby team. “There’s a lot of tradition behind it. It’s a very violent sport, but it’s also a gentleman’s game. There’s a lot of sportsmanship that I never really saw in football.

“I miss football every once in a while, but I like rugby better,” he says. “It’s more well-rounded, and everyone has to be in prime shape. I like that aspect better.”

Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].


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