The college rugby career of Juneau's Josh Dean was like a fairy tale.
Dean, who'd never even held a rugby ball until he arrived at the U.S. Air Force Academy, was a quick study of the game. He played well enough to earn three international trips with national teams - to South Africa and New Zealand with the Collegiate All-Americans and earlier this year with the USA Eagles Sevens team to New Zealand - and this season he was honored with the Woodley Award, which is called the Heisman of college rugby.
But Dean's college career ended last weekend just short of its ultimate cap - a repeat Division I title in the USA Rugby Collegiate Championships - when Air Force lost 35-32 on Friday to eventual runner-up Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. On Saturday, California won its 20th national title in 25 years with a 46-28 victory over Cal Poly.
"It's been quite a ride," Dean said in a phone interview from Palo Alto, Calif., where the national championships took place. "It was a lot of fun meeting some great guys and having a lot of opportunity to travel around the world."
Dean was a former baseball and football player at Juneau-Douglas High School, graduating in the same Class of 1999 that included Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Carlos Boozer and Montreal Expos relief pitcher Chad Bentz.
In his freshman year at Air Force, Dean and another cadet from Juneau, Christian Kolden, saw a flier advertising rugby tryouts. They decided to check them out, and the rest is college rugby history.
Dean reached the varsity - called the Air Force Zoomies - during his sophomore season. That summer, Dean received his first international trip when he was named to the Collegiate All- Americans for its tour of South Africa. He was named the GoffOnRugby.com/Tullamore Dew U.S. Player of the Month Award for August 2002.
The next year, Air Force Academy won the national championship with a victory over Harvard. In the semifinals, Dean scored a try (rugby's equivalent of a touchdown) as the Zoomies upset 12-time defending national champion California in the semifinals. Last summer, Dean served as a team captain when he went on a trip to New Zealand with the Collegiate All-Americans.
Last fall, the Zoomies got a new coach and Dean - a senior - was named one of the team's captains.
During the fall season, Dean was surprised after a Sept. 28 victory over Colorado. He was called onto the field and presented with the Woodley Award, which is named for American college rugby pioneer Albert Woodley and is given to the nation's top collegiate player. According to an Air Force press release, the "award not only recognizes superior athletic performance on the pitch but also acknowledges outstanding character and leadership displayed both in competition and in life."
"It was like, here's some hardware. It was pretty crazy," Dean said of the award, which is a crystal rugby ball. "I wasn't expecting it at all. It's been quite an experience."
In January, the national team came calling again, but this time it was the Eagles - the top national team. Dean was invited to play for the U.S. Sevens team in two February tournaments, one in New Zealand and one in Los Angeles. In sevens rugby, teams player a faster -paced game with seven players instead of 15, and games last just 14 minutes instead of 90 because of all the running.
The Zoomies posted an 11-0 record against college teams during the spring season, but Dean didn't see much action. During a February game with the Denver Men's Club team, Dean suffered a hairline skull fracture and he was sidelined most of the year. So he helped coach the team until he was finally able to return to action three weeks ago, just in time for the opening round of the Collegiate Championships.
Air Force beat Tennessee 71-10 in its opener, then edged Ohio State 16-13 to advance to this past weekend's Final Four with a 13-0 record.
When he returned to action, Dean also made a position change. Normally, Dean plays the No. 8 position, which is like the point guard or quarterback of a rugby team's offense and is the player who digs the ball out of the scrum. Because of other injuries to Zoomie players, Dean slid over a spot to play scrum half or No. 9. In rugby, the positions have numbers with the low numbers being the big guys in the scrum and the high numbers being the fast guys out on the wings.
"I played scrum half, the guy who passes all the time to the fly half," Dean said. "As a No. 8, you run the ball more. The scrum half, or No. 9, does more passing."
At the Final Four last weekend, Dean scored a try early in the second half to help Air Force take a 27-8 lead over Cal Poly. But sloppy play allowed Cal Poly to rally, and a drop-kick field goal with two minutes left gave Cal Poly a 35-32 victory.
"We were pretty confident going into the Final Four," Dean said, adding that the Zoomies weren't looking ahead to a rematch with California, which beat Naval Academy in the other semifinal Friday. "It's always tough to play Cal, but we were focused on Cal Poly.
"They had two drop goals, including one that bounced off the crossbar. Usually there are no drop kicks in a game, but Cal Poly tried it four times and made two."
Despite not winning a second national title, Dean is still pretty happy with the season. He graduates from Air Force on June 2 with a business management major and a commission as a second lieutenant.
"It was definitely disappointing to end up without a title, but considering all the changes at least we got back to the Final Four," Dean said. "Right now, my future in rugby is up in the air. I start pilot training in November (in Oklahoma City) and once I start that rugby is on the back burner. It's a year-long program. It depends on how things go, but I'd definitely like to play rugby again."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.