LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Twenty-four of the very best college rugby teams in the country will soon descend upon the pitches of WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., to battle for one of eight spots in the Cup Quarterfinals of the May 27-29 Men’s Division I College 7s National Championship. All matches at College 7s will air on The Rugby Channel at no cost to viewers.
Half of the Men’s DI field qualified for Nationals via tournament victories at automatic qualifying events, while the other half of the bracket impressed enough during its sevens season to earn at-large berths to College 7s. Plenty of experienced and quality sides make their way back to the National Championships for sevens, including seven of last year’s eight Cup Quarterfinalists. Additionally, nine squads will make their first College 7s appearances with hopes of fending off warm temperatures and stiff competition to advance out of their pools.
Pool A: Central Washington, Kennesaw State, New England College, South Carolina
2015’s third-place finisher, Central Washington, and Southeastern Conference Champion South Carolina headline Pool A, but just because the other two teams are not quite as familiar as the aforementioned schools does not mean they should be taken for granted.
Kennesaw State won the South Independent Rugby Conference 7s Championships over last year’s winner, Middle Tennessee State, and contenders like Florida International and South Florida. The Owls are a relatively new program, but have built a quality side that should head to Cary with nothing to lose.
Former NCSRO Champion New England College has adapted to Division I rugby quite smoothly. The Pilgrims went 6-2 playing 15s in the fall and reached the Cup Finals in two qualifying events this spring, but fell to AIC and St. Bonaventure at the Armory Collegiate Sevens and Kutztown 7s, respectively. New England College boasts a balanced lineup, but have a real playmaker in Australian-born half back Ian Luciano, who played for the AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American Sevens squad last summer.
South Carolina has been one of the better college teams in both sevens and 15s from the southern region for several years. After falling to Tennessee in the SCRC Championship in 15s, the Gamecocks were determined to win a Conference Championship in sevens this spring and did just that. South Carolina won two of the three conference series stops, including a Cup Final win in the SCRC Championship over the same Tennessee team that ended its 15s season. The successful sevens season concluded with four Gamecocks earning All-Conference recognition, as well as Steve Darnell being awarded Coach of the Year and Brian Keown named Player of the Year.
Central Washington has advanced to the Cup Quarterfinals at each of the four College 7s National Championships. The Wildcats’ best finish came in 2011 when they reached the Cup Final, and have reached the Cup Semifinals each year since, bowing put in the Quarterfinals back in 2012.
This year’s Central Washington team just might be its best. Tanner Barnes, Scott Dean, and Vili Toluta’u are now all upperclassmen, and have represented USA on national age-grade teams in the past. Meanwhile, Seth Halliman and Aladdin Schirmer are recently-capped Eagles that have the ability to take over a match. Given the history of success at Nationals and its loaded lineup, Central Washington must be thinking this weekend’s goal is Cup Final or bust.
Pool B: Cal Poly, Fordham, Lindenwood, St. Bonaventure
Lindenwood did not necessarily come out of nowhere to win last year’s College 7s National Championship, but it is safe to say the Lions will have a target on their backs this year. D1A Rugby’s No. 3-ranked team went 6-0 on its way to a sevens National Championship, and return plenty of the student-athletes that hoisted last year’s trophy in Denver.
One player that raised two trophies last year was Mickey Bateman, whose Most Valuable Player performance earned him the Dave Sitton Memorial Trophy. Bateman, a skilled half back, will try and run circles around the competition along with Alex Augspurg, Giovanni Falco, and Morgan Findlay. Unfortunately for the Lions, Eagles center Lorenzo Thomas and Mid-South Freshman of the Year Malon Al-Jaboori will not be able to compete due to injury.
No team has had more success in sevens in 2016 than St. Bonaventure. The Rugby East side has built a staple of capable athletes thanks to coach Clarence Picard, and has received a boost in performance with the addition of former Eagle Tui Osborne to its coaching staff. The sevens guru led Life University to the 2011 College 7s National Championship, as well as Championship Finals in 15s at the conclusion of the 2013-15 seasons.
Osborne’s tutelage, combined with talented players such as All-Conference members Louis Carpio and John Sullivan, have helped guide the Bonnies to three tournament victories since March.
California Conference’s Cal Poly may have advanced to the Cup rounds back in 2011, but has not been able to follow up that success since. Like most teams on the west coast, the Mustangs played the majority of their sevens in the fall, with their best finish coming in a Finals loss at Cal Autumn 7s.
Cal Poly will surely want to improve upon its 2-3 record from 2015. In order to do so, the Mustangs will need strong performances from its better back line players, including Will Campuzano, Keli’i Dominguez, and Mark Grzanich.
Fordham enters the College 7s field as a bit of a surprise – but the Empire Rugby Conference has been full of surprises this year. The 15s season was as wide open as the conference has seen in several years, and Syracuse eventually went on to win the crown. In sevens, Colgate appeared in control, but was unable to attend the third and final Empire Sevens tournament. That opened the door for Fordham, which beat Syracuse in the Cup Final of the third conference tournament, awarding the Rams a bid to Nationals.
Pool C: Alabama, Arkansas, Saint Mary’s, West Virginia
A loss to Life in the D1A National Championship must have Saint Mary’s excited to get to WakeMed Soccer Park and wash the taste of the 15s Final out of its mouth. The Gaels have bagged two National Championships in 15s in recent years, but are still seeking their first College 7s title. Saint Mary’s has reached the Cup Quarters in each of the event’s four years, including a Cup Final appearance in 2013 that was squandered against Arkansas State.
Former All-American at Saint Mary’s Joey Reavey returns to coach the squad after getting his teeth cut in coaching at 2015’s College 7s. Reavey will have help in the form of former teammate and USA Eagle Kingsley McGowan. Fifteens captain Kevin O’Connor will continue to lead the team from the front, and All-American scrum half Holden Yungert, who has been out since early March with an injury, makes his return after missing out on the D1A Playoffs.
Arkansas and West Virginia return to College 7s after mixed results in 2015. The Razorbacks were only able to win one pool match last year, and actually fell to the Mountaineers on Day 2, but did rebound to end their tournament with a win over Cal Poly. West Virginia put itself in position to leave Denver with hardware last year, but its inspiring win over Arkansas did not help in the final match – a 17-5 loss to Wisconsin.
The Razorbacks are coming off of a second consecutive 15s season that ended in the D1AA Semifinals. News recently broke that the team will join the Red River Conference next year, making this weekend’s tournament an opportunity to head into its first season in D1A with a head of steam.
Alabama was not able to win any of the three SCRC sevens events, but the Crimson Tide did go a combined 7-0 in pool play, and reached the Cup Finals twice. If Alabama wants to advance out of Pool C, it will need playmakers Ross Depperschmidt, James Puente, and Matt Schick to play up to their potential.
Pool D: American International, Bowling Green, Oklahoma, San Diego State
Half of Pool D was able to reach the 2015 Cup Quarterfinals. AIC is one of those teams, but given the program’s propensity towards sevens, there is a feeling the Yellow Jackets will not be pleased if they are bounced in the Cup Quarterfinals again in 2016. After winning the Armory Sevens and a spot at Nationals, AIC turned its attention to 15s and eventually reached the Semifinals of the D1AA National Playoffs. With All-Americans Christian Adams, Gavin D’Amore-Morrison, Jihad Khabir, and Corey Momsen ready to lace up the boots in North Carolina, the Yellow Jackets will be as dangerous as any team in the field.
San Diego State is the other Pool D side to make it to the 2015 Cup rounds. The Aztecs have seen steady improvement in 15s as of late, finishing second in the California Conference and ranked No. 10 in the D1A Top 20. All-Conference full back and side-stepper Ari Flink will need to have a big tournament for San Diego State to improve upon last year’s results.
Oklahoma’s third-place finish in the Red River Conference 7s Series was not going to be enough to get the Sooners into Nationals, but the team continued to work on its game and improved along the way. In February, Oklahoma lost in overtime to West Virginia in the Final of the Big XII Universities 7s Championship. Over spring break, the Sooners traveled to Jamaica, where they hosted a sevens tournament and competed against several Caribbean sides including the Jamaican National Team.
Bowling Green is no stranger to College 7s, but the Midwest powerhouse in 15s has yet to crack the Cup Quarterfinals. In 2015, the Falcons were only able to win one pool match, but did well on Day 2 to defeat both Texas State and Texas A&M. After the team’s season in 15s ended a bit earlier than it is used to, Bowling Green has had more time to concentrate on sevens, which should produce better pool play results for the Falcons.
Pool E: Davenport, Iowa, James Madison, Texas A&M
As a Midwest side that enjoys mixing it up in the trenches, few expected Davenport to reach the Cup Final of last year’s College 7s National Championships. 2015’s run to the Final included consecutive wins over Utah, Arizona State, and Central Washington before running out of gas against Mid-South rival Lindenwood in the Final.
The Panthers’ sixth-ranked finish in D1A proves it has plenty of talent left over from last year’s squad, but the team must make due without graduates and PRO Rugby Ohio standouts Mason Baum and JP Eloff.
Texas A&M was not able to win a pool match at the 2015 College 7s Nationals, but the Aggies’ results in the Red River Conference 7s Series are a strong indication the team will be better prepared this weekend. Texas A&M won each of the three Red River tournaments, which helped springboard a 4-2 conference record in 15s. Aggies to keep an eye on include Red River All-Conference players Mateo Garcia, Braedan Hood, and Matthew Theodore.
Following a sub-par season in 15s, Iowa has played a ton of sevens in 2016 – and played well. Six tournaments have produced an impressive 21-5 record for the Hawkeyes, including a 26-14 ‘W’ over Michigan in the Plate Final of the Big Ten Universities 7s Championship. Cup qualification is not out of reach for an Iowa program that went 2-3 at last year’s event.
2015 Division II National Champions James Madison is back at College 7s, but will not be defending its title. The 2015-16 season not only produced a National Championship in sevens, but a National Semifinal appearance in 15s for the Dukes. The success on the pitch led to a well-earned promotion to D1AA’s Keystone Conference. In its first season playing DI rugby, James Madison was able to win its conference and reach the Quarterfinals of the D1AA Playoffs, so it does not appear that the Dukes are out of place playing at college rugby’s highest level.
Pool F: Arizona State, North Texas, Notre Dame College, Wyoming
Arizona State has built a reputation as one of the better sevens sides in the country, and last year’s place in the Cup Quarterfinals at College 7s proved the Sun Devils can tangle with the nation’s best. This year, Arizona State was able to finish second amongst an incredibly difficult West Coast 7s field that included Arizona, Cal, Cal Poly, San Diego State, and UCLA.
Like James Madison, Notre Dame College made the jump from DII to DI this year and has been far from outmatched. The Falcons reached the D1AA National Championship, where it fell to reigning champ UC Davis. In sevens, Notre Dame College reached the Cup Final of its host tournament. Once again, the Falcons lost in the last game – this time to a St. Bonaventure team that has proven difficult to beat in 2016.
North Texas has proven time and time again it is the best sevens team in the Southwest Conference. Unfortunately for the Mean Green, dominant results out of the Lone Star State have yet to produce similar outcomes at Nationals. Last year, North Texas opened College 7s with four losses before ending its tournament with a one-sided win over Colorado State.
The D1A West season did not go as planned for Wyoming, as the Cowboys were only able to pick up one win during the conference season. Without the D1A Playoffs to prepare for, Wyoming turned towards sevens for its postseason berth. Needing a tournament victory to punch a ticket for College 7s, the Cowboys went to the Rocky Mountain 7s on the base of the Air Force Academy, and beat West Champion Utah in the Final to renew its National Championship hopes.
If Wyoming wants to advance out of pool play, it would be wise to give All-Conference center Cody Jerabek as many touches as it can. The dynamic midfielder has a combination of size and speed that gives opposing defenses fits.
Every one of the 72 Men’s Division I matches at the May 27-29 USA Rugby College 7s National Championships will be broadcast and aired free of charge on The Rugby Channel. Pool play begins Friday, May 27, at 4 p.m. ET, and knockout rounds will begin during the afternoon of May 28. The Men’s DI Cup Final will be the last game of 167 College 7s matches, and scheduled to kick off May 29 at 2:40 p.m. ET.
The match schedule for all four divisions competing at the 2016 USA Rugby College 7s National Championships can be found at USACollege7s.com.