When the Delmarva Rugby Club took on Harrisburg at home in October, former Cape Henlopen football standout Justin Lopez realized his potential on the rugby field.
“He scored three tries against Harrisburg and ended up with a huge black and blue eye and a huge knot on his forehead,” said Delmarva Rugby Club founder and coach Tom Colucci. “He carried the team, and scoring three tries is a big, big day for anyone in the game of rugby.”
Lopez remembers the Harrisburg coach approaching him after the game to say some kind words.
“‘You have a long career ahead of you and you need to see what this sport can do for you,’” Lopez recalled the Harrisburg coach saying. “‘Once you get out there, you can play at an Olympic level.’ That kind of [encouragement] started my movement [toward rugby].”
Lopez said that was just his second rugby match. Now, Lopez will compete for a chance at international glory with the Dominican Republic national team.
“I was amazed. It was truly a blessing,” Lopez said of his initial reaction to making the team. “Rugby has helped get me through a lot, and I am so excited about [making the team] and so excited to play in Barbados this September.”
Lopez has dual citizenship with the Dominican Republic and the United States and hopes he can someday crack into the U.S. national team. The Dominican Republic will be one of 14 teams playing in the 2018 RTEK RAN Sevens in Barbados Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 22 and 23, as a qualifier for the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru. Sept. 22 will consist of pool play, with the knockout stages the next day.
Perhaps overconfident at first, Lopez was quickly humbled by how good the Dominican rugby players were. Their ability to find space and throw with both hands impressed Lopez, and he quickly stepped up his game during tryouts to make the team.
As a standout three-sport athlete at Cape, Lopez became known for his accolades on the football field, and he was recruited to play at Salisbury University. However, due to disciplinary measures, Lopez’s time at Salisbury was cut short.
Although he pursued football out of high school, Lopez said it was his wrestling and lacrosse background that helped him the most in the transition to playing rugby.
“Wrestling was a one-on-one sport and it was all on you, and coach [Chris] Mattioni really demanded a lot from us as Cape wrestlers,” Lopez said. “Lacrosse helped me trust my teammates more as well, but I would say wrestling helped me out the most out of all the sports.”
With future aspirations of working as a veterinarian still in mind, Lopez then transferred out of Delaware Technical Community College to the University of Delaware, where his love for the game of rugby took full swing.
Lopez said it was his friends who pushed him for months to join the Delmarva team and play rugby with them. Although Lopez had some hesitation about the sport after the first couple of practices, Colucci told him to play in a game before making any decisions. Lopez hasn’t looked back since.
In two years with the Delmarva Rugby Club, Lopez earned Rookie of the Year honors followed by an MVP season the next year.
First utilizing him in a quarterback-type of role, Colucci converted Lopez into more of an outside linebacker position to show off his speed, agility and evasiveness. Using him as a flanker, Colucci has made the most out of Lopez’s wholesome athleticism to best help the team.
“It’s almost impossible to tackle the guy,” Colucci said. “In rugby, the amount of athleticism he brings is usually among the top tier out of anyone on the field.”
Lopez will look to put that athleticism on display next month at the Holders Hill Polo ground in St. James, Barbados.