The first time Tim Stanfill laced up cleats for a rugby match, he had no idea what he was getting into.
“I just got the ball and ran,” Stanfill said.
Six years later, he is still running.
Stanfill, 22, has covered a world of distance since checking out rugby for the first time as a high school junior. These days, the Vancouver native is a team captain for Central Washington University’s rugby club team and on the radar of coaches as USA Rugby begins to plan for the debut of seven-man rugby at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
“He is incredibly athletic, one of the most athletic rugby players I’ve seen,” Central Washington rugby coach Tony Pacheco said.
That athletic ability served Stanfill well. In the 2010-11 season, he helped the Wildcats finish ranked seventh in the nation for the 15-man game among top-level college teams.
In the seven-man rugby playoffs, Stanfill scored the only try for CWU in a playoff win over Arizona that put Central into the final four of a national tournament.
“The best feeling was winning the CRCs (playoffs),” Stanfill said.
Stanfill said he grew up playing many sports. He enjoyed playing football for Evergreen High School, but rugby became a big part of his life from the day a friend invited him to come play for the Vancouver Sharks. He scored three tries — rugby’s touchdowns — that day.
“Rugby is just a sport I was made for,” Stanfill said.
Most recently, Stanfill was one of 18 college All-Americans chosen to participate in an August training camp and tournament at the USA Rugby national team training center in California.
That opportunity exposed Stanfill to a high level of competition and coaching, and gave him a chance to play positions besides his usual place on the wing.
“I thought I did all right,” Stanfill said, noting that the game was played at a much faster pace than even high-end college rugby.
Now in its 40th season as a club sport program, CWU rugby is high end. In the Pacific Northwest, Central Washington is the only school that competes at the top level of college rugby, the College Premier League. Schools like Washington, Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State play rugby a level below Central Washington.
An exercise science major, Stanfill said that being involved with a program with a tradition of excellence has pushed him to improve both on and off the field.
Bob Ford, who coaches at CWU along with Pacheco, said the program’s high expectations challenge even players as talented as Stanfill. Now that Stanfill has been exposed to national-level camps and competition, the urgency to improve has increased.
Stanfill’s natural athletic ability landed him a spot in the Central Washington starting 15 from the day he arrived at the Ellensburg campus. For his first couple of years, Ford said, he got by on that athletic ability.
Early in the 2010-11 school year, Ford said Stanfill began to take more ownership in the program’s success. He also began to understand how his speed can make his team and teammates more successful.
A wing player, Stanfill is at his best when he has space in which to run. In rugby terms, Pacheco said, Stanfill is a “stepper,” meaning he can plant his outside foot and change direction quick enough to leave a defender grasping for air.
Harnessing that speed and agility has taken time, Pacheco said.
Pacheco said playing with and against players who are as athletically gifted as he is has helped Stanfill become a better player and teammate.
Stanfill is learning to affect a game without the ball in his hands as much as he naturally does while carrying it, the coach said.
One of the CWU rugby mantras is to make the player next to you an All-American. Now that Stanfill has reached that level, his coaches say that Stanfill’s biggest job this season will be to make teammates better.
“His success has put a target on his back,” Pacheco said. “Everybody’s going to know where he’s at all the time. He’s going to have to show some patience to handle that.”
Stanfill plans to work hard for a shot to compete internationally, and to make the Olympic team. Pacheco said those are realistic goals, and that Stanfill has an “amazing opportunity” if he focuses on continuing to improve and learn to be a complete player.
Stanfill is naturally excited about the future, and the prospect of becoming an Olympian in five years. Regardless of where rugby takes him, Stanfill said the sport has already enriched his life in many ways.
“It’s more the brotherhood side of rugby, the connection you have with teammates and opponents,” Stanfill said.