Elijah Naranjo is an Albuquerque native out of Valley High School. He is one of two NMT rugby players to earn All-American status.
Photos courtesy of New Mexico Tech


When it comes to college sports, New Mexico Tech’s athletic program does not exactly spring to mind – with one notable exception.

The Miners rugby program is a standout not just locally and regionally, but nationally, as well, holding a No. 2 ranking in National Collegiate Rugby.

And NMT players are starting to get their due, as well, with two recently earning All-American status: Albuquerque native Elijah Naranjo out of Valley High School, and Milaan Van Wyk from Namibia in southern Africa.

They are the first players from the school to have been so honored, said coach Gearoid Dunbar.

“It’s fantastic for me personally as a coach, because you get that sense of pride,” he said. “I always want my players to be the best and do their best and to see them achieve the highest level makes me proud.”

And it does wonders for the program and the sport, Dunbar said.

“It ups the level of the program,” he said. “For all the players currently, it’s great for their morale. Just because we’re a small school doesn’t mean we can’t achieve. And it’s a fantastic way to advertise; no reason not to come to New Mexico Tech.”

While the two players come from dramatically different backgrounds both in life and in rugby, both are quite similar in their attitudes, the coach said.

“They’re fantastic men on and off the field,” he said. “Dependable. Team leaders on and off the field. They’re guys that if I needed something, they’d be the first ones to be there.”

And while the awards recognize individuals, neither sees it as such.

“They didn’t like this award themselves,” Dunbar said. “Rugby is a team sport. You need the other guys playing the way they are able to so they can shine. They’re very humble players, Milaan and Elijah, they don’t have that attitude that they’re better than everyone else.”

Milaan Van Wyk from Namibia in southern Africa has earned All-American status for his rugby playing on New Mexico Tech’s mens rugby team.

Both players have an innate sense for the game, he said.

“Their ability and their game knowledge and they have tremedous rugby IQ,” Dunbar said. “They’re able to read the game differently, see things as they’re happening or before they’re happening and understand why and how to react.”

For his part, Naranjo is a relative newcomer to rugby, having picked it up a couple of years ago after playing college football at New Mexico Highlands.

But he quickly adapted as a scrumhalf player, working at his new sport tirelessly.

“I just studied,” he said. “Like anything you do school wise, if you want to do well you study, put in time on your own. Watch games. When you watch rugby, it’s easy to learn the game because commentators to a great job of describing the game. They describe the rules when things happen. I read up on the laws of rugby and put in the work on my own. Dunbar is a great coach and I just took what I could from him and ran with it.”

Being an All-American is great, he added, but it doesn’t really take into account what went into an individual earning it.

“It’s an honor and a pleasure to be given that award knowing that all the work I put in behind the scenes, only playing this sport for two years,” he said. “But the biggest thing that gets left in the background is the team and the community behind the award. It’s an individual award, but not an individual honor. We have players that never played the sport and learned the game in three months and helped get us on the stage to be recognized.”

What Naranjo appreciates about the sport, as opposed to football, is the non-stop action and all-out play.

“You have to be versatile, not like football where you one snap, then you get a little break, then go again,” he said. “Or just playing offense or defense. You have to play every position on the field, It’s not non-stop. A fast-paced flow. There’s an amazing flow to the game.”

A flyhalf, Van Wyk, meanwhile, grew up playing rugby and soccer, but excelled in the former.

“Like coach says, you’ve playing the game for long, it’s easy to understand how to react in situations and field positioning and stuff like that. I read things really well. And both of us, we put in a lot of extra work with the new guys.”

That can be a chore, but it has its moments, as well.

“It can be rough sometimes,” Van Wyk said of working with the rookies. “Seeing their progress and seeing the guys getting better and more mature in the game. That’s the best thing.”

As for earning All-American, he paused.

“For me, it’s an honor and a privilege to get All-American,” he said. “It’s the first time somebody from Namibia got that. It was definitely a surprise for me and I didn’t expect it. Rugby is a team sport. What it comes down to is the brothers I’m playing alongside.”

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