Originally article published at http://d1arugby.com/news/pips-return/
In the sweltering late-summer heat of Greeley, Colorado, a small and slender South African player stood waiting to participate in drills as part of a USA Rugby selection scouting camp. He looked around, and saw a sight that would become familiar to him throughout his rugby career. Every other player on the pitch, even the other scrum halfs, were all bigger than him. He shook off his fears and turned his focus to putting out a strong camp. His performance at camp would get him noticed by a coach from one of the top college programs in the country, setting in motion an accomplished career in rugby as a player and coach that is far from over.
Born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Justin Hundley moved to the United States in 1999 as a sophomore in high school. His first experiences with rugby in America would come after being cut from tryouts at a local soccer team. Hundley began honing his skills as a U.S. rugby player that same year when he joined Tri-village rugby club in Hilliard, Ohio. Hundley continued to improve throughout high school facing talent from around the Midwest, ultimately earning himself an invite to the USA Rugby selection camp. There, he met then-Penn State coach Don Ferrell, who first piqued his interest in Penn State’s rugby program, leading him to commit to Penn State months later. Now, 10 years after graduating from Penn State, Hundley is back with the Nittany Lions as head coach and is making a profound impact on the program.
While attending Penn State, Hundley’s team quickly found success, with an elite eight appearance his freshman year and back-to-back final four appearances in his last two years of college. In his final year, Penn State hosted Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen competition in an exciting run that featured a memorable home upset against Utah in the quarterfinals.
Much of Hundley’s rugby success stemmed from a position switch prompted by the presence of scrum half Mike Petri at Penn State. Hundley and Petri first met while vying for the same spot at a winter selection camp as Hundley was just starting college. Unbeknownst to them, they would go on to play next to each other for over seven years combined at Penn State and New York Athletic Club, becoming close friends. After the switch, Justin was able to explore different positions and develop a more well-rounded game out of the backline, giving him the opportunity to climb to the highest levels of rugby in America.
“It was kind of a springboard for the rest of my rugby time in the U.S.,” Hundley said. “Moving to flyhalf gave me a good sense of the game and set me up for a bit of success later on.”
Hundley found more than a bit of success after Penn State. As a young talent and fifth-year student, he made the U.S. Men’s National Sevens team and played on the Eagles squad for two years, participating in several Sevens World Series competitions. During these years, Hundley joined New York Athletic Club (NYAC) for 15s where he played a variety of positions on one of the best club teams in the country. Alongside Mike Petri once again, Hundley was an integral part of NYAC’s 2008 Super League Championship. In the memorable championship final against Belmont Shore, Hundley nailed a 50-meter drop goal and scored a key try of his own in a game that NYAC won in sudden-death overtime.
Throughout his playing career, Hundley’s scrappy, fearless style coupled with disciplined fitness and technique earned him the respect of anyone that judged him based solely on his size. Known by the nickname “Pip” since his first rugby experience in the U.S. back in Hilliard, Hundley knew how to use his size to his advantage and create space where there often was none.
At NYAC, Hundley played under two rugby authorities that he recognizes today as two of his main inspirations. Current Iona head coach Bruce McLane and former United States Men’s Team (USMT) head coach Mike Tolkin coached Hundley at NYAC during the 2008 championship run and coached alongside him at Xavier High School. At Xavier starting in 2013, Hundley served as assistant athletic director and JV coach, collecting a 43-5 record during his tenure while drawing on certain techniques from McLane and Tolkin to develop his own coaching style.
“Both of those guys are huge inspirations that I lean on for help when my back’s ever against the wall,” Hundley said. “Those are guys I can always reach out to and learn a lot from.”
Hundley certainly relied on his support system this August when he found himself tasked with getting to know and leading a Penn State team that was already three days into summer training with their first fall matchup just weeks away. Hundley put his faith in his own coaching ability and his Penn State players, some of whom are used to a bit of a coaching carousel. For fifth-year seniors like co-captains Malcolm May and Mike Eife, Hundley is the team’s sixth coach in five years.
From his first introduction with the Penn State team, Hundley has kept an open dialogue with his players, demonstrating a willingness to listen to players’ analysis of what is and isn’t working.
“I came in and we set some goals early on, one of which was winning Rugby East,” Hundley said. “This group of players has a sort of grit about them…and I walked into a great situation with a good core leadership group. They’ve been tremendous.”
Those who have observed Hundley’s practices and coaching style describe him as extremely organized, demanding discipline with a similar team-first mentality that carried over from his playing days at Penn State. Hundley emphasizes a mastery of basic skills and wants players 1 through 45 to all develop a multiskilled game and participate in handling and technical drills. Practices are run efficiently with players eager to show up early to work on individual areas of improvement. Hundley has even introduced some unconventional skill drills into his practices, like having forwards kick grubbers to wings, building confidence in skills for all positions.
“(Justin’s) game plan is very simple and understandable. It (is) about finding space, penetrating, and reloading,” McLane said. Everything is movement, movement, movement at his practices because you have to be fit to play for him.”
This focus on skills and fitness turned out to be the difference for much of Penn State’s fall season. The Nittany Lions finished the fall undefeated in conference play and secured their second straight Rugby East title in a 22-21 shootout against Army.
Hundley’s presence in the game may not only spell great things for Penn State, but for the future of collegiate rugby and American rugby as a whole.
“I’m really proud of his accomplishments, I think he’s doing a great job at Penn State,” Tolkin said. “We’re starting to see it really come through with this new generation of coaches and guys like Justin Hundley, they’ve played near or at the highest level in the game. They raise (players’) game to a higher level and demand more because of what they’ve experienced.”
Still young, Hundley has a bright future ahead of him and sees this new chapter of his rugby career as an inviting challenge. He hopes to take Penn State Rugby to a new level of consistency to compete for a national championship every year. As a player and now coach whose skills and knowledge for the game command respect, he has made an impact across the American rugby landscape and is now looking to impart that same knowledge back on the next generation of young players.
“I have the highest respect for him, the only time I want him to lose is when they play us,” joked McLane. “He walks the walk, everything he asks his kids to do is something he’s already accomplished himself. Most people can point to one magic moment when you talk about great people. You don’t have to say that with Pip because it was every day, it was great every day.”