by Kae Dennert and Carlina Grillo
Cal Poly Humboldt’s Men’s Rugby Football Club has been an official club for 50 years now. Coming off of their 2022 national championship win, there is a lot of hype going into this new season. The club started in 1973, and has had a steady team since. They have grown and shrunk in size, but have stayed consistent in work ethic. They practice three times a week, the coaches wanting to make sure that their athletes are able to be students first and enjoy their practice time.
Issac Khelo is a junior at Cal Poly Humboldt, and is the president of the club. Khelo was a part of the team last year when they won nationals. He has been committed to rugby since he was a child, and has always been involved in the sport. He traveled to Humboldt to play rugby, and has enjoyed the program since getting here.
“I’ve been playing rugby my whole life, since I was like six or seven,” Khelo said. “I’m an international student, so in South Africa it’s the biggest sport and I love the sport and am passionate about it.”
Khelo exudes positivity about his team and his time here. In a hot and sweaty fieldhouse right before their practice, he walked around checking in with his teammates with a huge smile on his face. Khelo talked about his excitement for their upcoming season, which will typically in an average season include five home games and five away games.
“My goals for this season… I want our team to win the championship again,” Khelo said. “That’s the only goal and the only reason why we’re out here.”
Excitement for the games and the team and their future prospects also brings a glance to the past of the team. Khelo explains that he is going to try to leave the team better than he found it.
“I want the same thing that the alumni left us,” Khelo said. “I want the program to still be thriving when I leave.”
The rugby alumni have shaped the program into what it is. The team’s forwards coach Vince Celetto is himself an alumni, as well as his two sons. All of them are now involved in the program and dedicate themselves to keeping the team going.
Vince Celetto has been the forwards coach for 10 years now. He and the head coach, Greg Pargee, played on the team together when they were students at Cal Poly Humboldt.
“I thought I was done with rugby after I played for 15 years,” Celetto said. “Sure enough, the oldest one wanted to play.”
The team used to be Division I, and Vince Celetto hopes to get the program back there. The win of the national championships was a big push towards that goal.
Local alumni continue to support the team, as they have spent the last six to eight months spending time putting together a dinner auction at Humbrews.
“Clubs basically get $3,500 from the school and people don’t realize it,” Vince Celetto said. “We want to make it where this is enjoyable for [the athletes]… we’ll take care of trying to get them on buses.”
Because of the championship win, there has been a surge in fundraising and the alumni have started a non-profit organization with the goal to bring youth rugby into the community.
The team currently has a roster of 36 athletes, and they accept anyone and will coach them into the sport. Since it is not a popular sport here, they know going into recruiting that not many people will have experience beforehand.
“We have to get a progression going where we feel safe to put you on there,” Vince Celetto said. “I don’t want you injuring yourself for the rest of your life.”
Vince Celetto’s son, Justin Celetto, also played rugby at Cal Poly Humboldt. He started playing the sport around the age of 12 or 13, but grew up around it because of his father. He went to Humboldt to stay in the area he grew up in, and he enjoyed the school.
“Rugby to me, as cliche as it sounds, is my life.” Justin Celetto said. “I mean, I play over in Australia and coach over in Australia for a living. It’s work, but it’s also something I just love to do.”
Justin Celetto coaches in New Zealand and Australia, also while playing for the Eastern Suburbs Rugby Club (The Beasties). Rugby surrounds Justin Celetto’s whole life and he wouldn’t know where he was without it or what he would be doing. Justin Celetto graduated last year and has moved on to assistant coaching when he’s in the area, but he misses being on the team.
“It’s a little bittersweet for me,” Justin Celetto said. “I wish I was in school one more year to get to play in the 50th, but still it’s super fun to see these guys and the experience they get to have.”
Justin Celetto has full confidence in his team, especially with the recent title grab of national champions. He’s excited to watch the boys play and see the alumni return to the field.
During the game on Saturday, the team showed how much time and effort they put into the sport. Their dedication to playing as well as they could through the 80 minutes of gametime was worthwhile, as they ended the game with a win of 55-7 against DI team University of Nevada, Reno’s Wolfpack.
Humboldt’s rugby club currently has two other home competitions scheduled for Oct. 29 at 1 pm against Chico State at the Redwood Bowl, and Nov 5 at 1pm against CSU Monterey Bay at the College Creek Soccer Field.
“50 years… I just think about history,” Khelo said. “I think about how the program’s been going on for a long time. [It’s] the longest lasting club at Humboldt, so that’s a lot of pressure but it shows us that there are a lot of people backing us.”