Coach Buck Billings didn't have to go very far for his first college recruiting trip.
The McMinn County High School teacher and highly successful coach of the Tribe Rugby Football Club was named the new men's and women's rugby coach at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina, back in January.
Billings is finishing up his final season at McMinn and officially begins heading up the Lander Bearcats in June. When he heads there, he is bringing six Tribe seniors with him.
Three girls – Cayla Watson, Danielle Satherlie and Julianne Carter – and three boys – Jeremiah Rosenbrook, Cam Smith and Toby Duggan – all signed letters of intent in March to continue their educations and rugby careers at Lander, and thus continuing to play for Billings at the college level.
Rugby had been a club sport at Lander, but both the men's and women's rugby programs there were elevated to varsity sport status in January, with Billings hired to guide that elevation.
Furthermore, the women's program at Lander will enter NCAA Division II play in two years. The first year of the women's program being varsity, but not yet under the watch of the NCAA, allowed Billings to recruit and sign three girls who have been instrumental to the Tribe girls' success to Lander, even while he is still coaching at McMinn.
Watson, Satherlie and Carter have all been a part of the McMinn girls' recent run of five consecutive Tennessee Rugby Association state championships and multiple berths in the national tournament.
About Watson, the first girl to sign with Lander, Billings calls her one of the toughest girls to play rugby at McMinn. Watson had also been recruited by Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mount St. Mary's in Maryland and Life University in Georgia.
“She's one of our players that our opponents are always afraid of,” Billings said. “She's very intimidating on the field, but one of the kindest girls you'll ever meet. A straight-A student and everything you want for your college team.”
Watson, who also helps take care of Billings' son, is a first-generation college student who will major in business administration with a concentration in health care management.
"Not only will it help the rugby program, but it will help me, in general, knowing that I'll have a family there with me,” said Watson of playing for Billings again. “But I'm excited.
"I think we'll have a good set piece after this first year, then when we become NCAA next year, I hope we'll bring in a ton of girls from all over.”
Satherlie joined Watson with her letter of intent just a couple of days later. Satherlie, a starter since she was a freshman, had received a lot of interest from Dartmouth since her sophomore year.
"It's just been so exciting to watch her grow up,” Billings said.
But Satherlie couldn't turn down playing for Billings again at the next level.
"For me it's an exciting moment to play for Buck again,” Satherlie said. “He has had a major role in my life these last four years and I'm lucky to have this opportunity.”
Satherlie is majoring in criminal justice and hopes to eventually become a crime scene investigator. But before then, she aims to play rugby professionally.
"I plan to start up a good program I'll be proud of when I graduate college, and I plan to be able to succeed in rugby and be able to continue my career in rugby,” Satherlie said.
Carter, who is home schooled, will be attending Lander already with an associate's degree in hand from her dual-enrollment at Cleveland State Community College. Carter had Dartmouth, Quinnipiac and Brown all recruiting her.
"She's excelled in the classroom, excelled on the rugby pitch and has as good a character as any kid I've ever coached, so she excels at all the stuff that matters, and she is a great rugby player,” Billings said. “I'm excited she'll be with Cayla and Danielle. She's the kind of kind you really want to have on your team, especially when you're trying to establish a new program.”
Carter, who plans to major in biology and become a veterinarian, could minor in one or two more things while at Lander. But until her graduation comes, she'll enjoy continuing to play rugby with Billings once again.
"It means so much to me, and with my other friends Cayla and Danielle, we've played together for four years,” Carter said. “And Coach Billings has had a humongous influence on me and has made me the player and the person I am today. He taught me a lot about hard work.”
Rosenbrook was the first of three McMinn boys to sign with the Bearcats and join Billings at Lander.
At his signing ceremony, Billings looked back on how much Rosenbrook had developed since his freshman year, when, according to Billings, he “did not look like someone who was going to be a varsity college athlete.” Rosenbrook developed playing with the USA South team, however, and Queens University was battling for his signature.
"He's going to be an instrumental part of our program as a freshman,” Lander said. “And beyond the rugby player, he's a great young man and I'm excited to continue coaching him and excited he's going to be a part of our program at Lander.”
Rosenbrook, who plans to major in psychology, said continuing to play for Billings means “everything” to him.
“I never would've seen myself playing rugby in the next level when I first started, but just having him there for me and just supporting me and helping me work for it,” Rosenbrook said. “It's been a dream of mine to play at the next level, and to be able to play at the collegiate level and hopefully beyond that.”
Smith's main sport at McMinn had been baseball, which he also still plays. He initially tried out rugby his sophomore year, but didn't enjoy it then. But then he gave it another go his senior year and fell in love with it.
"The thing about rugby is that we're a family, and every single guy on the team, you look at as a brother, and you're putting your body on the line for them and they're putting their body on the line for you, and that's what really just hit home for me,” said Smith, who will major in business administration and military science and will also be in ROTC.
And Billings didn't even realize at first how much of an athlete Smith would be on the rugby pitch, and that he has a lot of upside to go. That he also excels in the classroom made Smith someone Billings had to convince to follow him to Lander.
“As I look at what I'm going to be graded on coaching at Lander, it's going to be character of my student-athletes, the GPA of my team and wins and losses, and definitely Cam checks all three of those boxes and makes me feel like my job future is more secure because he's the kind of young man, like the other guys at Lander, that I want to build my program around,” Billings said.
And Smith said playing for Billings in college again meant “everything” to him.
“I was stepping out on a limb and nervous coming in and playing this sport, and especially going so far away for college, but I really feel like I made the right decision because Coach (Billings) has always been one I can go to as a player or as a figure in my life,” Smith said.
For Duggan, going to Lander will mean he also joins his sister, Satherlie, as well as joining two of his teammates and continuing to play for Billings.
"Change has kind of been an issue for me, but going to college and having Coach Billings there will give me that sense of consistency, and going in with some of the other guys as well will help me adjust better to the college life, also,” Duggan said.
Duggan has played several positions in his three years of rugby and also played offensive line on McMinn's football team for four years, which Billings said has brought “a lot of crossover success.”
"He's just always been a tough player, a smart player, always makes good decisions on the field, and he's grown into a good leader,” Billings said. “So I'm excited. He has the grades, the character and the skill, and those are the three things that will matter most at Lander. Having young men who will have the right attitude, the right work ethic on the rugby pitch.”
Duggan, who will major in nursing with a concentration in sports medicine and athletic training, said there's a similar mentality to playing offensive line in football and the forward position he's played in rugby – with one positive difference.
"You have the same mentality that you're always hitting people, you're taking the big hits, delivering the big hits, you're one of the brutes in the trenches,” Duggan said. “It's helped in the sense of staying physical, staying active. And one thing I like really well is that they encourage me to run the ball in rugby, and I never got to touch it in football.”
When Billings first got hired at Lander in January, he was a bit surprised considering some of the other candidates he was up against.
"They had people from New Zealand and South Africa and England applying for it and even a former women's national team coach in the U.S., so I'm kind of shocked I got it,” Billings said.
And Billings is hoping the fact he got a college rugby coaching job, in addition to the success the Tribe and its players have had during his tenure, and the national reputation the program had built from that success, will attract a quality replacement at McMinn with similar ambitions to coach college rugby one day.
“It's a good opportunity for someone to come in and coach that maybe wants to be a college coach,” Billings said. “Because it wasn't really because of me, but because of this program that I was able to get this job, and the competition was amazing.
"So there's going to be a recognition in the rugby community that, 'Hey, if I can get a job at a program like the one we have, then I could also in the future coach varsity college rugby and make a good living just coaching rugby.'”