BOULDER, Colo. – The West Conference season is not technically over, as Utah and New Mexico still have a fixture remaining that will be contested after the New Year. Regardless, the Utes have already clinched the West, making for a very successful first season in the Rocky Mountain conference.
Other teams still provided highly skilled and entertaining rugby. Air Force earned its best win of the season against Army two weeks ago. Colorado State averaged 68 points per contest in wins over Air Force, New Mexico, and Wyoming. The fall also saw Colorado and Wyoming continue a heated rivalry that has produced several intensely close battles in recent years, and New Mexico, despite lopsided loses, remains positive and continues to build continuity amongst its young roster.
With so many impressive team efforts this fall, the West inevitably has some standout performers worthy of praise for their hard work and a place on the West’s All-Conference team.
West All-Conference 1st Team Forwards:
Benj Mills, prop, Utah: On its way to a West Conference title, Utah ran around teams, but also used its might to run through them. Mills is the catalyst of Utah’s power game. However, it’s not only Mill’s strength that impresses, as he’s also very intelligent and quite mobile for a prop.
Blake Rogers, prop, Colorado: An All-Conference performer last year, Rogers once again put in another solid campaign for the Buffs. Like Mills, Rogers possesses a high rugby IQ and a balanced skill set. Still sporting a mullet, Rogers is also 1st Team in terms of style.
Chad Gough, hooker, Utah: Gough is not only the best hooker in the West, but quickly becoming one of the best college players in a No. 2 jumper. A grinder who enjoys mixing it up in the trenches, Gough also runs with the ball in open space with the athleticism and determination of a center.
Hunter Hancock, lock, Air Force: Fairly new to rugby, Hancock played like a veteran. Especially elusive with ball in hand for a forward, the junior makes it difficult to lay a shoulder into him, and has helped the Zoomies’ set piece immensely.
Grigor Kerdikoshvili, lock, Air Force: Mr. Do-it-all for Air Force, Kerdikoshvili moved around between the second and third rows, and had a major impact wherever he lined up. The Zoomies’ utility man knows where to be on the field, and has great awareness and strength at the contact point. He even handled the majority of kicking duties this fall.
Eli Mackay, flanker, Colorado: What Mackay lacks in size, he makes up for in sheer aggression. A starter for the Buffs ever since he stepped on campus, the now junior is an important part of the Colorado program.
Gabe Ruflin, flanker, Utah: Ruflin has the type of motor every coach wants out of its flankers. The junior is absolutely all over the pitch for 80 minutes for the Utes, and his long frame makes him very effective in the lineout.
Evan Geist, No. 8, Colorado State: Another All-Conference performer from a season ago, Geist is a natural athlete at the back of the scrum. When paired in the back row with All-American Ben Pinkelman, the two create an opposing pair of ball carriers and tacklers.
West All-Conference 1st Team Backs:
Carmine Hernandez, scrum half, Colorado State: Hernandez has been one of the better half backs in the West for a number of years now. With great command of the game and plenty of zip on the ball from the base of the ruck, Hernandez is a massive asset to the Rams.
Jay Brown, fly half, Colorado: When Luke Gross first took over the Buffs, the longtime Eagle tested Brown at center, but he was ultimately deemed too valuable to remove from his post at fly half. The decision to keep Brown in the No. 10 jumper paid off, as the senior was the steady hand steering Colorado’s ship.
Ben Burmester, center, Air Force: After being named team captain before season’s start, Burmester has taken his game to another level. The inside center ran his lines extremely hard, and brings his opposite number down to the ground soon after it touches the ball.
Cody Jerabek, center, Wyoming: Jerabek came out of nowhere this fall, but the Cowboys are sure glad to have him. A law student who just picked up rugby this season, Jerabek is a natural, to say the least. Incredibly dangerous each and every time he touched the ball, Jerabek had multi-try performances against New Mexico, Colorado State, and Colorado.
Colin Culver, wing, Air Force: Possessing a combination of speed and length, Culver was Air Force’s danger-man on the edge and a solid tackler as well.
Phil Hinson, wing, Utah: The senior winger was one of several threatening ball carriers for the Utes this season. Like Culver, Hinson is very good open-field tackler.
Brendon Kozman, full back, Wyoming: Arguably Wyoming’s most consistent performer, Kozman was a force in every phase of the game. Most notably, Kozman was a terrific last line of defense, and superb at the breakdown. Handling the kicking duties for the Cowboys, he also tallied 43 points this fall.
West All-Conference 2nd Team Forwards:
Jaron Beerlire, prop, Colorado State: A returning starter for the Rams, Beerlire has plenty of experience and it shows. There isn’t much flashy about Beerlire’s game, but he’s a grinder and an important piece to Colorado State’s pack.
Caleb Meyer, prop, Utah: After watching Meyer play, it would come as little surprise the newcomer to the Utes program is a United States Marine. Meyer is as tough as nails, has a remarkable work rate, and is not unfamiliar with the try zone either.
Joe Carl, hooker, Air Force: The Zoomies have a lot of leaders up and down their roster, but Carl is one of their best. A smart player who always seems to make the right decision on the pitch, Carl also sticks his nose in more than his share of the rucks.
Adam Page, lock, Colorado: After starring as an eight man for the Buffs last fall, Page moved to second row following the addition of U20 All-American Christian Wiessing, and performed admirably. Page is big and strong, but he also has good vision and field awareness, which allows him to drop accurate offloads into tight gaps.
Daniel Prochoda, lock, Colorado State: Prochoda is a workhorse in the Rams’ engine room. A powerful second rower with above-average mobility, Prochoda doesn’t need a lot of touches to make his impact on the game felt.
Elliot Higgin, flanker, Air Force: Just a freshman, Higgin earned a spot on Air Force’s first XV prior to the season and refused to relinquish his place in the lineup. Higgin has combined his natural speed with a hard-earned fitness that even opens eyes at the Academy. He seems to be at every breakdown, and when he hits you, you know it.
Oliver Jenkins, flanker, Colorado State: There were few forwards that were more productive than Jenkins in the second half of the West season. Down the stretch, Jenkins scored a jaw-dropping nine tries in the Rams’ final three matches.
Mike Lewis, No. 8, Wyoming: The Cowboys took a massive hit when 2014 West All-Conference performer and eight man Tim Mendoza was lost to an injury early in the season. While Wyoming wasn’t quite the same team without him, it wasn’t because of his replacement. Mike Lewis left his post at hooker to man the back of the Cowboys’ scrum. By season’s end, Lewis bagged himself four tries.
West All-Conference 2nd Team Backs:
Evan Clark, scrum half, Colorado: It didn’t take long for Clark to win the job at scrum half after arriving in Boulder this fall. The newcomer to the Buffs program does all of the little things one would ask of a No. 9, plus he has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Lance Eberhard, fly half, Colorado State: Eberhard has been in command of the Rams attack for several seasons now. His distribution, kicking, and leadership are big reasons why Colorado State is a top-15-ranked side.
Cliff Kindred, center, New Mexico: Not only was Kindred the Lobos’ best player this fall, he was also the team’s hardest worker. Just a sophomore, Kindred will be a huge part of New Mexico’s rebuilding effort the next few years.
Scott Strong, center, Utah: Strong and fellow Ute Taylor Thomas form one of the best center pairings in the country. While Thomas possesses a bit more speed than his counterpart, its Strong’s downhill-running style that keeps Utah on the front foot.
Chris Portilla, wing, New Mexico: Only a freshman, Portilla was experimented with along the back line, but his greatest contribution came from the wing. A superb athlete with good balance and speed, Portilla will be a big piece to New Mexico’s puzzle going forward.
West Freshman of the Year – Evan Clark, Colorado: Clark had a terrific season for the Buffs, regardless of his year in school, and teams around the conference took notice. While the scrum half’s command of Colorado’s attack was impressive for a freshman, it was the timeliness and precision of his kicking game that is years ahead of most freshmen.
West Forward of the Year – Christian Wiessing, Colorado: Wiessing might be in his first season with the Buffaloes, but he’s not a freshman. The loose forward’s resume already includes competing in the 2014 Junior World Trophy, captaining the U20 All-Americans this past summer against Canada, and earning caps for the Glendale Raptors. His length makes him a factor in the lineout, but his strength and athleticism helped him to score four ties this fall. One of those tries came in a win over rival Colorado State when Wiessing fended off multiple Rams before carrying another few over the line with him.
West Back of the Year – Taylor Thomas, Utah: Thomas is a line break waiting to happen. With explosion, quickness, and side-stepping all part of his running repertoire, the Utes’ outside center is as dangerous as they come in the back line. Still, for all of his nimbleness in attack, he’s also a lock-down defender.
West Player of the Year – Ben Pinkelman, Colorado State: Last year’s West Forward of the Year, Pinkelman has been one of the best players in college rugby for three seasons now. A natural loose forward, Pinkelman has been used wherever he is asked, and dominates wherever he lines up on the pitch. This year he was used as a center, flanker, and No. 8. While he missed match time with the Rams due to his participation with the Men’s Eagles Sevens setup, he still did enough to earn Player of the Year distinction, including a four-try performance against Air Force.
Coach of the Year – Haloti Liava’a, Utah: There is no doubting Utah is a hotbed of youth and high school rugby, and the Utes’ talented roster is a benefactor of that. Still, someone has to the lead them, and Coach Liava’a does an amazing job of that. Blessed with a deep and experienced staff, which includes Director of Rugby Mark Drown and assistants Elvis Hansen, Jon Law, and Matthew Wunderli, this award is truly recognition of the entire management team at Utah.