Three years ago, a phone call awoke Cole Zarcone at 4 a.m.
The voice on the other side of the call was Todd Thornley – Central Washington University men’s rugby coach. It was the best type of middle of the night wake-up call.
“Hey, Cole, you want to go to St. Louis?”
“The bus leaves for the airport in 20 minutes.”
One of Zarcone’s teammates had slept in and he couldn’t be reached. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound winger from Camas, Washington was Thornley’s attempt to find a replacement. Zarcone, who had only joined the rugby team the previous fall (2016), and who’d only picked up a rugby ball for the first time just a few months prior to that, not only made it to the bus on time, but, a day later, he found his name on the Wildcats starting roster against Lindenwood University – Belleville. Two days after a convincing win over the Lynx, he started again, helping CWU to a 21-3 victory over then No. 6-ranked Lindenwood University.
And so it began. From there, the raw rugby prodigy started every single game over the rest of his Wildcats career.
A mere 40 months following that fateful trip to the Midwest, he was back in Camas on June 13, 2020, surrounded by a group of family and friends eager to hear Zarcone’s name called in the inaugural Major League Rugby Draft. Amidst the excitable crowd was his dad, Rob Zarcone, his mom Joanne Schram, his step-dad Brad Schram, his mentor and former football coach Jeff Kemp, and, perhaps the person most responsible for Cole even having a rugby career, his older brother Austin Colvill.
But, on this day Zarcone had to wait. It wasn’t until the final pick of the entire two-round draft that he was finally selected by the San Diego Legion.
“It was so nerve-wracking,” he says. “I was starting to lose hope, honestly. Then to hear my name get called, it was just so special. Not much matches that in my life.”
It was a moment he had long imagined – just in a bit of a roundabout way.
“Since I was little, I had the dream of being a professional athlete,” he says. “Even though I switched sports, the dream remained the same.”
You see, for Zarcone it was football that tantalized his imagination when he was young, having taken up the sport when he was just six years old. Back then, Kemp was his coach while playing Pop Warner Football with the East County Jets.
Unquestionably, football was his sport.
And in Camas, football is the sport.
Zarcone was part of the continual emergence of Camas High School as a football superpower in Washington. During his time with Camas, Zarcone played a significant role in what became a 58-game regular season winning streak. In 2013, as a junior, he also helped the Papermakers to their first-ever 4A state final. Camas has now played in three of the last seven state championship games, winning in 2016 and 2019.
So, yes, it was football that brought Zarcone – a running back and defensive back with Camas – to CWU.
He was a walk-on in his first year in Ellensburg, Washington, but to Zarcone, it seemed a future wasn’t in the offing within CWU’s gridiron plans.
It was after his first and only season with the football team that he followed Colvill’s inspiration onto the rugby pitch.
“After a year (at CWU), I was ready for something new,” Zarcone says.
In 2009, Colvill had also made the football-to-rugby switch at Western Washington University after the Vikings cut their football program. Colvill, who was also a star at Camas, helping the burgeoning powerhouse win its first league title in 36 years in 2005. Ten years later, having switched to rugby at WWU, he went on to win a national title with the Life West Gladiators in 2015. The following year, he was set to turn pro, when he joined the San Francisco Rush of the now-defunct PRO Rugby. However, a preseason labrum tear ended Colvil’s career before he could play a single professional game. He hung up the cleats to pursue a career as a chiropractor.
Almost without missing a step, Zarcone took the rugby-playing baton from Colvill and picked up rugby himself in the spring of 2016.
That summer, he took up Sevens, learning the basics from Brendon and David Curle with the Titans Rugby Club, and then immediately jumped into a few tournaments. He scored two tries in his first-ever game of Sevens.
“I was instantly buzzing from it,” Zarcone says. “I had an absolute blast and I was sold. I just loved the atmosphere. Once I got a little taste, I wanted more. The learning part was just so exciting.”
He sent a two-minute clip of himself playing Sevens to Thornley and that opened his rugby possibilities.
“I saw it and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re athletic and we can work with you,’” Thornley recalls.
In short order, he became a rugby player through and through.
“He brought a work ethic and a desire to get better at this game,” Thornley says. “Every single day, he was relentless in learning and physically evolving. He took advantage of every single resource he could. Sure, he had to work through some frustrations, but he worked really hard to get where he is.”
Teammate and fellow captain Brian Nault, who was recently selected second overall in the MLR draft by NOLA Gold, recalls a particular beep test. While the rest of the players were all done, Zarcone just kept going … and going. Nault was almost at a loss for words when describing the moment. If you know Nault, that’s saying something.
“He’s a workhorse,” Nault says. “He’s a machine. He never stops. He’ll do whatever he can to succeed.”
Then, in Zarcone’s second season, 2017-18, he exploded.
At the prestigious West Coast 7s tournament, he tallied 10 tries over six matches and was named the tournament MVP as he helped CWU capture the title for the first time in the program’s history.
With this, his name started to pop up on the international radar. The summer of 2019 took him to another level as he earned both a place within the selection camp for the Pan American Games and, later in the summer, a spot on the Collegiate All-American 7s roster for the 2019 RugbyTown Sevens.
“Cole is an out and out finisher,” Thornley says. “You give him a little bit of space and an opportunity to finish and he’ll do exactly that. He can finish opportunities. His biggest strength is ball in space and using his footwork and speed.”
With his ever-rising success and with MLR taking shape, his boyhood dreams started to come into focus.
“I realized I could actually do this after college. That gave me a second surge of wanting to pursue this. I knew that (CWU) was going to challenge me and allow me to grow into a player who could play professionally.”
With Zarcone and Nault leading the way, the Wildcats’ 2020 season had the potential to be their best ever. A first-ever victory over BYU – a 51-7 dismantling in Ellensburg – had all of college rugby taking notice of the happenings in the Pacific Northwest. When the season was cancelled due to COVID-19, the Wildcats were ranked No. 6 in the D1A Top 20. In the end, CWU’s final game ended up being a 51-20 victory over Army, with Zarcone scoring twice. It wasn’t the ending anyone had imagined, but for Zarcone, who already has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, and who is on the precipice of completing his Master’s in Information Technology Administration Management, it was an exclamation mark on an impressive collegiate career.
In some ways, that party in Camas on June 13th seems like an eternity ago. In other ways, it seems like 10 minutes ago. The same can be said for that 4 a.m. phone call.
Ten days after the draft, he takes a phone call. He’s back in Ellensburg. This is where he’s spent his recent summers – entirely focused on rugby. The draft didn’t change his outlook. He’s focused on his next challenge in San Diego.
“I’m really addicted to playing the sport and working out. I just love it. I enjoy the grind.
“I work for the people around me and work for God and try to do my best for him. I’m really never satisfied. I try to enjoy what I get as I go, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to chase a better version of myself.”