LOCK HAVEN — While in college, many like to venture out and try new things to expand their horizons. Former PAHS soccer striker, Khris Cleary, wanted to stay involved in athletics but pursued a different, much rougher route when he joined the Lock Haven rugby club team during his sophomore year at the school.
The PAHS 08' grad is weeks away from finishing his last classes at Lock Haven before he starts an internship in High Point, North Carolina in a couple of months to complete his Sports Administration degree.
In 2009, Cleary's sophomore year, he decided to join the rugby team.
"I didn't know anything about it until I came to school. I was going to play soccer but that just never worked out, so I found the rugby team and learned about rugby, and I kind of liked it, and it just stuck with me," said Cleary.
Cleary was not alone in learning the sport of rugby, as most of the players on the team were unfamiliar with the sport when they joined the squad.
"We are just a rag-tag group of athletes. We have a couple baseball players on the team and guys that used to play football. It's pretty much just athletes from other teams coming together... None of us knew rugby going into it, we were just decent athletes at everything else we did so we've kind of made it work," said Cleary.
In four years, Cleary has played multiple positions on the rugby field, also known as a pitch, but mainly works as a winger. Wingers are positioned on the outside of the backline.
The position is often reserved for players with speed and elusive moves, which Cleary developed from years of soccer and basketball at PAHS.
Cleary's soccer skills have helped him with various aspects of rugby. His strong punting skills are directly linked to the kicking abilities he learned from soccer, along with his speed, which makes him dangerous as a winger. Also, both sports are continuous play, so Cleary was already familiar with that format.
Cleary was always known for his aggressive style of play while playing soccer and basketball at PAHS and he plays rugby with the same tenacity, and in many ways it's more acceptable.
"I think my aggressive nature has helped me a lot... that's the mindset of just about everybody on the field," said Cleary.
Cleary has made great strides to improve his play since his sophomore year.
"My tackling has gotten a lot better. Whenever I first started, it was tough for me to get the full field tackle because I never played football or anything. So, tackling was the first thing that was tough," said Cleary.
With rugby being a hard-knock sport, Cleary has had to deal with injuries. In a preseason alumni game during his first season, he tore his ACL in his right knee and had to sit out the entire season.
During his junior year, he tore his meniscus and had to miss the final game of the season.
Cleary has been fortunate enough to play all over Pennsylvania and against teams in New Jersey. His Lock Haven squad faces teams from Lafayette, La Salle, Drexel, Villanova, University of Scranton and East Stroudsburg University, with their biggest rival being Rowan University out of New Jersey.
With rugby being a club team, Cleary learned first-hand the financial burdens of what it takes to support a team, since they do not receive the same funding as an "official" NCAA-sanctioned team.
Club teams receive less funding than the official teams, with no money being given out for scholarships or anything of that nature.
"We have to rent our own vans for travel... So we have to fundraise and do stuff like that to support us. Last year, we went to the championship game, and by the time we got to the championship game, we (basically) ran out of money
and we had to find a way to get ourselves there and it was in Pittsburgh. So to get ourselves from Lock Haven to Pittsburgh was kind of rough," said Cleary.
The team would sell T-shirts and play charity games to raise money for the squad.
Cleary became president of the team during his junior year and the final two years of his five-year college stint he has served as vice president.
When Cleary joined the team in 09' the team played in a division III conference but moved up to division II by the time he reached his fifth year, and ultimately took third place in the Mid-Atlantic Rugby conference.
"We've kind of changed our reputation around. Whenever I first started playing we would win like two games a season and now this past year we were 7-2 in division II," said Cleary.
For the first three years Cleary was on the team, they did not have an official coach and practices were ran by the team captains. Now, the team is coached by Jack Bukowski.
Cleary was glad to see the team improve since he began playing as a sophomore.
"I'll miss the level of competition because we've built ourselves up to this point. Whenever we first started, it was kind of joke and we'd lose games and we wouldn't even care... But as we got better and we saw ourselves improve, we stepped up our level of competition, and playing at that high of a level of competition to end your career is kind of nice," said Cleary.
In the future, Cleary may pursue coaching rugby.