John Stuhldreher’s recruiting process began with an Instagram direct message and ended with an offer from a school that felt like home.
Four years after signing up for rugby on the suggestion of a friend, Stuhldreher has accepted an offer to play college rugby, ending a long recruiting journey. Stuhldreher announced his commitment to Bowling Green State University over the weekend on Twitter.
Stuhldreher is the third member of the Saint Ignatius rugby program this year to commit to play rugby in college. Janniel Badeas and Ricky Rose will also be playing at the next level, as both have committed to St. Bonaventure University. Stuhldreher has a story different from his two teammates, however.
Stuhldreher entered Saint Ignatius as a football player. He originally didn’t want to play rugby in the spring of 2016. Only a suggestion from a friend changed his mind.
“Seamus McCarthy egged me on. He said, ‘Come to the first practice, just come.’ So I went to practice and signed up,” said Stuhldreher. “It was so weird and new to me.”
The first few weeks of practice were a learning experience. As a newbie, Stuhldreher didn’t know what he was doing and struggled at first to get going. Then, everything clicked.
“At one practice, one week before the first game, it clicked,” Stuhldreher said. “I knew how to get through a game. When I finished freshman year, I realized, ‘I might be pretty good at this.’”
Stuhldreher spent his freshman year on the developmental teams, learning the game and developing his skills. Under the watchful eyes of an experienced Saint Ignatius coaching staff, Stuhldreher began to blossom into a promising player.
Stuhldreher continued to play football in his sophomore season. Once the season ended, Stuhldreher geared up for rugby season. As fate would have it, Stuhldreher made the Varsity A team. In making the top team, Stuhldreher earned a ticket to travel to France, where he experienced a life-changing moment.
Following four regular season games to open the 2017 season, the A-side squad traveled to France for three games and a cultural experience in one of the most beautiful cities in the world in Paris, along with historic Normandy. Stuhldreher made the trip with his teammates, having earned a spot on the squad.
In the second of three games, the Wildcats played Lycée Albert Sorel in Honfleur, a pretty coastal town in Normandy. In the midst of the game, over 3,800 miles from home, Stuhldreher suffered a devastating injury. The sophomore had broken his leg, and was forced to head to the hospital.
Trips led by Dan Arbeznik ’00 are never light journeys. The savvy traveler exacts every second out of a trip, looking to expose his players to as much culture as possible. Every day is a workout. Ask any parent or player who’s traveled with Arbeznik – if you’re wearing your Fitbit, you’ll get your steps for the day.
Stuhldreher’s injury left him with a choice – hop on a plane to head home and heal, missing the rest of the trip, or gut it out in crutches and a wheelchair.
Stuhldreher chose the latter option. At most venues, a wheelchair did not pose a problem. But at Mont Saint Michel, an 8th Century French abbey with a peak at 256 feet (23 stories), the luxury of an elevator was not available.
Stuhldreher’s teammates refused to allow him to stay grounded. His rugby brothers took turns carrying him on their backs to the top of the historical marvel.
“You guys are my best friends,” Stuhldreher said upon reaching the summit.
Stuhldreher’s unforgettable French experience led him to stick with the sport.
“I put all of my focus on it,” said Stuhldreherer. “Then junior year came around, I got my starting spot, and here I am.”
Stuhdreher undersells his hard work, but there was no understating his impact on the field. Stuhldreher provided exceptional play on the field for the Rugby Cats all season.
Thanks in part to Stuhldreher’s efforts, the Wildcats rolled to a 13-4 record in 2018, with two of the losses coming during the trip to South Africa. Stuhldreher made the journey to Cape Town, avoiding injury and showing off strong play. At the end of the season, Stuhldreher and the Rugby Cats lifted the RugbyOhio Championship trophy for the second year in a row.
"John has been such an asset to our program,” Coach Arbeznik said. “He's not only a fierce competitor but he's just such a likable kid. It's not a wonder that he was elected by his teammates as one of our leaders for this season.”
Stuhldreher’s recruiting process started rolling in the offseason leading up to his senior season. The process began in a place that Generation Z loves – Instagram.
“The first school to talk to me DM’ed [direct messaged] me on Instagram,” said Stuhldreher. “I said, ‘Hey, this is exciting!’ I had a little conversation with them, then it died out. Later, I could look back on the humor of how they really DM’ed on Instagram!”
Other schools such as Kentucky showed interest, but Stuhldreher started with colleges in which he was academically interested. One day, Stuhldreher was about to head to Bowling Green State University for a non-athletic visit.
On a whim, Stuhldreher texted assistant coach Brian White ’92 to ask him if he knew anyone at BG.
“He gave me contact info for the B-side coach, who is the recruiter. We got some lunch with him,” Stuhldreher said. “At that point, I didn’t know much about the team. But he was a great guy and I liked what he was laying down.”
Stuhldreher fell in love with the school itself and asked the coach if he could take another visit. The coach suggested that Stuhldreher come to the school on a preview day to get a sense for the majors offered at Bowling Green.
Stuhldreher did just that. On the visit, the coach offered him a spot on the team, and Stuhldreher found out more about his potential major. At that point, Stuhldreher knew he would be a Falcon.
“A lot of people I know say it’s rural and smaller. I thrive in that,” Stuhldreher said of BG. “I didn’t want something way too small, and I didn’t want something way too big. I thought [BG] was a middle ground. I loved the campus. I’m thinking about going into construction management, and they’ve got a great program for that. For that field, it’s one of the top in the country. That was a driving force.”
Arbeznik believes BG is a perfect match for his bright young player.
“Bowling Green will be a great fit for him. They won the DIAA National Championship this past fall and they're always at the top end of the MAC,” said Arbeznik. “Their coaches do a great job of exposing their players to a really high level of rugby and I have no doubt that John will make an immediate impact with them. Fortunately for John, BG also tours England every other year. So he can add that to his passport in the near future."
Stuhldreher is very excited for his future. The young star can’t wait to continue his journey at Bowling Green, but first, he’s excited for his senior season.
As Stuhldreher says, the camaraderie and brotherhood in the Saint Ignatius rugby program is exceptional.
“I think Coach Arbeznik does a really great job. At first, it seems like he’s forcing you to be friends. But then you realize, you do many things that other teams or people don’t do,” Stuhldreher said. “We have a team retreat at the start of the year, we go on trips, among other things. You start to realize that you make friendships with your teammates. When you get on the field, you know that guy is going to help you and make a tackle. But he’ll also be with you off the field if you need something, too. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s great.”
To make it even more special, the Rugby Cats look to be great again this season.
“This year, we have a lot of talented guys. I want to help motivate them to be their best,” said Stuhldreher. “I know we can be a great team. Three years in, with two years on varsity with two state championships, I’d like to come out with a third one. The five of us do everything we can to push people and make people the best they can be.”
Before the season, Stuhldreher has a list of people he wants to thank.
“Thank you to Coach Arbeznik. He’s been great. He’s always there as a coach. He helps the leaders of the team this year. I wasn’t sure how to lead – I’ve always been just a player. But he’s great at talking through what he needs and what he wants you to do. We have a great coaching staff,” Stuhldreher said. “I want to thank both of my parents, too. My dad is my biggest fan. He’s at every game, across the country. He’s always there. I’m always excited to see him. When I see him out there, it makes me want to play a little better. It takes me back to fourth grade after a football game. After a game, he said, ‘You could have done this, you could have done that.’ I see him out there, and I want to play my best.”