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Junior Connor Bender Awarded Scholarship to Study Abroad in New Zealand

By Joe Mertens '15, 04/22/24, 2:30PM EDT


Bender will study abroad and play rugby for Nelson College in New Zealand for the next six months after earning the USRF Scholarship.

OHIO CITY, OH - In January, the United States Rugby Foundation (USRF) awarded two student-athletes in the United States the Nelson College Scholarship. One of those students was Saint Ignatius' own Connor Bender. Bender will travel to Nelson City, New Zealand, to study abroad and play rugby in the country's sunshine capital. 

Bender will attend the second-oldest secondary school and the birthplace of rugby in New Zealand from mid-April to August 2024. Gaining a unique experience of learning the curriculum of New Zealand and on the pitch, learning from some of the best in the game. 

"I got a call shortly after Christmas, and the person from the USRF told me I was awarded the scholarship, and I just froze," explains Bender. "I went back to my cousin's house in Pennsylvania, where we were staying for the holidays, and told my mom, and she was elated. It was one of the best feelings in my life."

The junior is a dual-sport athlete at Saint Ignatius High School. In the fall, Bender is a linebacker for the football Cats and has been on varsity for two seasons. Bender has been a member of the A-side rugby team since his freshman year and was a member of the 2022 National Championship team. 

"Connor is so willing to learn and be coached, and I think that is what stood out to the selection committee. He is extremely resilient and a soldier," says Head Rugby Coach Dan Arbeznik '00. "He is always striving to be better and now will be put in this cauldron of the rugby world. He will be challenged but has the mental framework to overcome the challenge."

Bender was one-of-two student-athletes to receive the Nelson College Scholarship. He joins JW Sarkees, who attends D.W. Daniel High School in South Carolina. Bender has already been in contact with Sarkees and is ready to team up in New Zealand.

"What I am more excited about is getting to meet new people. I have already started talking to the other scholarship award winner, so I can have a friend there before I even go," says Bender. "There will be kids from around the world, including Thailand, Vietnam, and other South East Asia, and I am excited to meet them."

Throughout his time with the Rugby Cats, Bender has had the opportunity to play internationally in three different countries. He was part of the France tour in 2022, the Japan tour in 2023, and most recently, the Argentina tour. At 17 years old, Bender will play rugby in his fourth different country. 

"It is special on a personal level. This sport is near and dear to me, but one of the most profound years of my life was studying abroad in Paris when I was in college. The experience of being exposed to new cultures and people is deeply impactful. I met my wife studying abroad as well," explains Arbeznik. "For me, I will be living vicariously through him. For him to have this opportunity as a junior in high school is a dream."

The what-if became a reality for Bender after discovering the opportunity in Alex Goff's "Goff Rugby Report." Bender initially just applied to get experience when it came time next year to apply to colleges; little did he know that a few months later, the dream would become a reality, and he would have the chance to play the game of rugby internationally.

"Speed of the game is what will be a challenge. It is a much faster pace in New Zealand than in the United States. The knowledge of the game is at a higher level and I think I am ready to play at that level," Bender says. "I know it'll take time to get used to. I have already talked to one of the kids who went last year to give me an idea of what to expect."

On Saturday, April 20, Bender played in the final match of his junior season, representing the Blue and Gold as he would travel to New Zealand the following day. Luckily for him, it was against rival St. Edward, and the Wildcats were victorious with a 24-0 win. To top it off, Bender scored a try midway through the second half. 

"One of my first thoughts when I got the scholarship was how my team would react. All of the guys were super happy for me," says Bender. "I plan on training an underclassman to be ready to take my spot and focus on what the program needs before I leave."

As the calendar flips to May, it is an exciting time for Saint Ignatius Rugby as they will compete at the Midwest Championships on May 4 and May 5 in Elkhart, Indiana. They will return to Moose Rugby Grounds on May 23 for the High School National Championships. 

"As a staff, we are taking a step back and looking at the global picture of this. In the bigger picture, what an experience for Connor to go across the globe and develop himself as a player and person. He will return as a different person six months from now," Arbeznik explains. "What an enrichment this will be for our program when he is back in his senior year. Connor will be a part of our program forever, and it will pay dividends in the coming decades. 

On the academic side, Bender is excited to get to the classroom. "They have some cool classes. They have Māori language, a traditional Polynesian language used for the haka," Bender says. They have some really great cultural classes as well. Anything you can think of, they offer, and I'll be able to take my AP courses."