Like most college freshmen in America, Evan Sommer didn’t know much about rugby.
This past winter, the lifelong Marietta resident, who excelled at soccer, cross country, track and wrestling at Walton High, was looking for a way to continue his athletic career while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Indiana University. Sommer hadn’t been recruited to play on the varsity teams for any of the aforementioned sports. And, though a Big 10 school such as Indiana certainly offered intramurals galore, he was hoping to find something a little more competitive.
That’s when the 19-year-old started perusing the school’s website for club sports — a happy medium between uber-competitive varsity competition and laid-back intramural activities. Indeed, there were club teams for soccer and wrestling, but Sommer wanted to try his hand at the grueling, unforgiving sport of rugby.
He had already sustained a litany of debilitating injuries at Walton — including a fractured skull and two fractured shins — while also undergoing major knee surgery, so he wasn’t easily deterred by the physical toll rugby promised to exact on his body. Rather, the most daunting challenge of the sport was navigating a novel set of complex rules.
Now, nearly a half-year later, Sommer acknowledges, when asked to reflect on the early days of his rookie rugby season — one that began with preseason workouts in early December — while just having finished finals, that “it was definitely a struggle to catch up.”
It was a struggle because the IU rugby team already had many veteran players, including several recruits — one of whom was on the U.S. junior national team. And most of the team had competed in the fall season (fall rugby consists of 15-player teams while the spring season involves 7-player squads). But head coach David Fee, along with captain Will Chevalier, recognized Sommer’s innate athleticism and intuitive mind, realizing that the freshman could be an asset for years to come.
It took just a week of practice before Sommer, as he describes it, “fell in love with the sport,” which he describes as a combination of wrestling, soccer and football — the latter of which his parents had always discouraged him from pursuing. But rugby, Sommer reasoned, is less likely to cause significant injuries, as opponents are constantly in close proximity to one another and not ramming into each other from yards out at full speed, as they do in football.
With his parents fully on board — and his skills improving by the day — Sommer emerged as a key cog in Indiana’s club rugby machine, which blasted through Big 10 opponents, finishing 17-1 en route to earning berths in national tournaments in Atlanta and New Orleans this month. While Sommer readily admits that his rookie campaign was not particularly glamorous, he takes great pride in his now-proven track record of rising to the challenge.
“Luckily, I managed to stay healthy throughout most of the season,” says Sommer, who roomed with Weber grad Jake Powers, son of MJCCA Director Jared Powers. “I tried very hard to do a lot of injury prevention in order to stay healthy. I know I’m pretty athletic. I’ve never done a sport like that.”
Alas, his luck ran out in the final contest of the regular season at Ohio State, one that accounted for Indiana’s lone loss. It was during this season-ending tourney in Columbus that Sommer, who was having a banner day, scoring two tries (rugby’s version of a touchdown), left the field feeling a tweak in his groin and abductors. In the days ahead, the school’s medical staff diagnosed him with a grade-2 groin pull and abductor strain, which made it quite apparent that he would be shelved for the national postseason tournaments.
“It’s very frustrating to not play on the team, especially back home in Atlanta,” says Sommer, who minors in Hebrew — he’s also minoring in exercise science while majoring in finance — and was an active member of Chabad in Bloomington, particularly during Passover and some Shabbat evenings. “I was going to get friends and family to come out and support [us]. Still excited to go to the tournament and support the team, take them out to a cool restaurant and show them the city of Atlanta. From Indiana, they don’t have a lot of Southerners. For most people in Indiana, they haven’t met a lot of people from Georgia. Pretty funny to me.”
Recent injuries notwithstanding — Sommer hopes to resume training in a few weeks for the fall season, when he will play the “scrum half” on IU’s 15-man team — the rugby experience has only enhanced a terrific start to his college career.
“I would definitely say I had a great first year at Indiana,” says Sommer, who hopes to do his junior-year study abroad in Israel, where his mother, Lora, an Atlanta-based PR executive, grew up. “The town of Bloomington is a great college town. I like the Kelley business program [Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business]. I can see myself succeeding there and developing my business career.”
As for his promising club rugby career — not to mention the potential for the sport to become more mainstream on college campuses — Sommer remains similarly buoyant, in no small part because former Indiana University rugby player Mark Cuban, otherwise known as the principal owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has recently provided significant financial support to the fledgling program as it establishes itself on the national stage.
“I play on one of the best programs in the country,” Sommer says. “Tribute to my teammates for making it so great. I have loved being part of the rugby team with the guys and the sport itself.”
But, he says, “I definitely still have quite a bit of learning to do.”