On August 17, 2023, Major League Rugby hosted their collegiate draft and for the first time in Saint Ignatius history, two Wildcats were taken in the MLR. Ricky Rose ’19 was taken with the number one overall pick by the Miami Sharks. Juan Pen ’18 was taken in the second round by the Chicago Hounds.
The pair of WIldcats continuing their professional rugby career is a testament to how far the program has come since its founding in 2005. Head Rugby Coach Dan Arbeznik ’00 credits freshman development coach Tony Vegh ’73 for his dedication to progressing the young student-athletes.
“Coach Vegh has the most rugby experience out of us all but chooses to work with the ninth graders; he wants to work on developing our guys,” says Arbeznik. “He always says he has two goals: win a national championship. We checked that box off and the second goal is to have one of our players go on to be a capped eagle for the National team.”
It was an excellent moment for Rose and Penn as both were teammates at Saint Ignatius and St. Bonaventure. Both were in Boston for a Rugby camp the next day, crafting their skills during the offseason.
The newest club in the MLR is the Miami Sharks; with their number-one pick took Rose. “I didn’t have any expectations to go that early. It has been a lifelong dream to play professionally. I told multiple teams I’d play for a ham sandwich and a bowl of soup. To go that early was truly special,” says Rose. “I have been fortunate to get here; the coaching I received at Saint Ignatius and St. Bonaventure set me up for success.”
Rose was a late bloomer at Saint Ignatius for athletics and when he became a junior, Rose put his head down and got to work. “Ricky was one of the first guys that began the relationship between rugby and the wrestling program,” explains Arbeznik. “He had this epiphany his junior year, joined the wrestling team and started to work his tail off. He was a two-year captain at St. Bonaventure, a tough honor to get.”
When Rose was drafted by the Sharks and was interviewed, he immediately name-dropped Saint Ignatius and expressed his gratefulness for being able to play for the Blue and Gold. “I recall my early days with great pride; athletically and physically, I wasn’t quite there yet. I hit a growth spurt my sophomore year and coach Vegh pulled me to the side and said, “I think a light just went on,” Rose explains. “He was right; something did click and I realized if I kept working hard, I could get good at this sport.”
Rose has a packed schedule over the next few months. He will be in Boston training for the Rugby World Cup in Bordeaux in September, where he will be playing against some of the best international teams around the globe. Rose will also compete at the USA Hawks camp in Charlotte, a feeder for the USA Eagle team.
About an hour later, Pen was drafted by the Chicago Hounds with the 16th overall pick in the second round. “Juan is one of my best friends. I have played rugby with him at Saint Ignatius and St. Bonaventure and had some great times,” says Rose. “To see it come to fruition is special. When he got drafted, I sent him the handshake emoji. No words needed to be said; we did it.”
Pen became the second Wildcat alumnus to be drafted into the MLR. “That was amazing; we never had one guy, let alone two guys in the top 16 picks; that was pretty special,” Arbeznik says. “Juan has the it factor of being an intense competitor and he was drafted at prop but has played a bunch of second row. He is a great leader.”
“I didn’t have much of an idea where I would end up,” says Pen. “Just to be picked was exciting and I think Chicago will be a great spot for me.”
Pen was a part of the Saint Ignatius rugby program at a young age as he would be a part of Rookie Rugby growing up. As Pen entered his freshman year at Saint Ignatius, he fractured his legs playing football. Despite not being able to play his freshman year, this didn’t slow down Pen.
“It was tough to be sidelined my freshman year, not being able to play,” says Pen. “I returned the next year and was lucky to make the roster for the State Semifinal and State Championship, the first time on A-Side. That’s when I noticed there was something I could do with my talent with rugby.”
For Arbeznik, he always saw something special in Pen because of his strong play on the rugby pitch. “He is soft-spoken and an insane competitor; he brings the hammer,” says Arbeznik. “I have a lot of respect for Juan and he is the type of player that wants it more than his opponents.”
Since officially being named a varsity sport in 2013, the rugby program has hoisted eight State Championships and one National Championship and now has produced two MLR players.
“It shows the growth of that program. As a student, the expectation of winning every year began,” Pen explains. “I think the progression over the years shows the commitment from coaches and players. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more players drafted into the MLR in the next few years.”
Congratulations to Ricky and Juan, who will represent the Blue and Gold at the professional rugby level.