California Conference Preview

D1A Rugby: California Conference Preview

California Conference Preview

BOULDER, Colo. – California has certainly designated itself as a true hotbed for rugby over the last decade. From the high school ranks to the adult club level, California is producing extraordinary rugby. However, the Golden State’s aptitude for skilled rugby is most evident in the college game.

USA Rugby Men’s Division 1A’s California Conference boasts seven teams playing some of the finest college rugby out west. Although all capable clubs, the conference is diverse in terms of the current state of the individual programs. Saint Mary’s College has been knocking on the door for a National Championship for years now, while Cal Poly, San Diego State and UC Davis have all been competitive on a national stage in recent memory. Sacramento State, Santa Clara and UC Santa Barbara are teams on the rise, while also adjusting to playing in college’s elite competition.

The consensus amongst the California Conference’s coaches is Saint Mary’s just might be head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. However, there is plenty of optimism between the six teams chasing Saint Mary’s.

Less experienced rosters in the league are guided by coaches with enough experience to spare, and all teams should be well prepared and fundamentally sound. Here is a closer look at the seven teams ready to duke it out in California:

Cal Poly

The Mustangs from San Luis Obispo are coming off of a 2013 season in which they reached the D1A semi-final round. Although Cal Poly lost to Saint Mary’s in that semi-final match, the playoff experience gave the team plenty of confidence it will surely use towards reaching the round of four again in 2014. A major blow the Mustangs must overcome is the unexpected loss of tighthead prop and 2013 USA Rugby AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American Eric Parsons. Parsons tore his ACL earlier in the year and will be spending his spring rehabilitating.

Parson’s unfortunate absence is slightly curbed by an experienced backline that will see minimal changes from last year’s starting backs. This unit helped Cal Poly qualify and compete well at the 2013 USA Rugby College 7s National Championship. Trusted ball handlers and attackers Taylor Honnette, Andrew Early and Alex Frost will allow coach Dave Burnett install a dynamic offense to keep the defense on its toes.

“We like to attack hard off the set piece and not give the defense easy crash-ball to defend,” explained Burnett. “We won’t shy away from playing expansive rugby.”

Without Parsons, the team will rally around forwards John Jon Murphy playing the number eight and a tough bruiser in loosehead prop Mickey O’Crowley.

In an effort to test his players against the best teams in the country, Burnett has arranged a daunting schedule that includes non-conference opponents BYU, Cal, Dartmouth and UCLA. If the Mustangs’ depth can lead them through a brutal month of March without absorbing many injuries, then it should be well prepared for a potential D1A playoff run.

Sacramento State

If youth prevails, then Sacramento State could have a very productive season. The Hornets are expecting to start five freshmen this spring. That may sound like an alarming amount of youngsters playing vital roles for Sac State, but the team also has talented veterans retuning to help direct the first-year contributors.

Travis Haugen returns to captain Sac State as he did in 2013. The Hornets’ leading try-scorer from a season ago also returns in outside center Brian Royal. Dangerous speedster Christian Bempong aids a team coach Adam Macrae deems as “dangerous to score anywhere on the field.”

Sac State will undoubtedly lack size up front, but expect to make up for a deficiency in bulk with a tenacious defensive mindset. Nobody embodies this attitude on the team as much as flanker Matt Skinner. Skinner tends to play well beyond his size and sets the tone defensively for the Hornets.

Similar to several other teams in the conference, Sac State deems itself capable of challenging all takers for second place in the league behind a superb Saint Mary’s squad.

Saint Mary’s College

Head Coach Tim O’Brien’s squad is once again one of the best teams in the country. That is a statement rugby fans expect out of the 2013 D1A National Championship runner-up. Still, the loss of four graduated USA Rugby AIG Men’s Collegiate All-Americans could stall the momentum of even the sturdiest of programs.

Instead of taking a step backwards, it seems as though Saint Mary’s is as strong as ever. After winning the highly competitive Battle in the Bay Sevens Tournament, Saint Mary’s played its way to the Cup Final of the 2013 USA Rugby College 7s National Championship. Although they lost to Arkansas State, the Gaels’ extremely skilled backline was on display all weekend in Greensboro, N.C., and the rest of college rugby took notice.

Joe Reavey will be initiating the offense from scrumhalf. He is a heady player who, if not accounted for, can attack a defense using his feet. Cooper Maloney appears to have settled in as one of the wingers. He is a trusted runner who was selected to USA Rugby’s College 7s All-Tournament Team.

Injecting life into Saint Mary’s 15s squad are a couple of Gaels who have been banged up over the past year. Bubba Jones is a powerful component to the team, while Kingsley McGowen has moved from fullback to outside center to ensure the ball will reach his hands as often as possible. McGowen just might be the most dangerous runner in college rugby.

However, the straw that stirs the drink is Garrett Brewer. Brewer’s skillset is extensive. The senior flyhalf can contest balls in the air, has a long stride, distributes the ball as well as any college player and is also a ferocious tackler.

To go along with its conference schedule, Saint Mary’s has scheduled a home-and-away with BYU, and will write another chapter in its Bay Area rivalry with Cal April 5.

Although it might seem like a National Championship or bust-type season for the Gaels, do not expect O’Brien’s team to sleep on any of its California Conference foes.

San Diego State

San Diego State stayed within the Aztec Rugby family when it named Alex Lichtig head coach before the fall 2013 season. Lichtig, along with assistant coach Joe Fontana, graduated from the SDSU Rugby program in 2008. The two played on very good Aztec clubs and learned plenty from then-coach Dan Payne, who is a former Men’s Eagles coach and current head coach at Life University.

It might take a few years for Lichtig to build the program back to the power it was in its heyday, but for now he has a few dangerous tools to help his club win matches this spring. Scrumhalf Brenden Winbrock is a reliable ball handler who will be feeding flyhalf Kaleikaumaka Konrad the ball whenever he has a chance. Konrad is a potent runner who possesses a skilled foot.

Leading an undersized front row will be Jake Poliakoff. Poliakoff can surely be counted on, nevertheless San Diego State players will be doing all they can to get their quicker assets the ball in space early and often in matches.

The Aztecs’ fall campaign was a successful one that concluded with an appearance in the Bowl Final at the College 7s National Championship. The early indication is that Lichtig’s boys will be ready for national contention sooner rather than later.

Santa Clara

Two short years ago, Santa Clara was building a reputation as one of the best Division IAA teams in the country. Now in its second season of playing at the highest level of college rugby, Santa Clara finds itself looking up to more teams than it is used to.

Former San Francisco Golden Gate Head Coach Paul Keeler took over the Santa Clara Rugby program in 2011. Although the transition from a successful DIAA team to an elite D1A squad might not happen overnight, Keeler sees his club capable of knocking off conference opponents in the here and now.

Helping SCUTS Rugby to those victories will be the former U-20 selection Tim O’Hara. O’Hara is a large unit who will wear the number eight and wreck havoc on opposing defenses. Also worth noting from the forwards is the athletic flanker Nick Leasure.

At the center positions, Kyle Dunne’s speed will be counted on to make line breaks, while Jimmy Summer’s relentless work ethic has put him in line to be a major contributor. Fullback Michael Cunningham is as steadfast as any open-field tackler Keeler has ever coached.

Santa Clara will surely not be an easy out for any team in the conference, and should be a factor in this potentially parity-driven season.

University of California – Davis

After more than a decade of successful seasons, UC Davis has been in a bit of a draught in recent years. While a heap of wins have not accompanied the progress the program has made to return to prominence, the Aggies are off and running in the right direction.

Head Coach Michael Taylor has a young nucleus. UC Davis’ youth movement might be better equipped to make a major splash nationally in a couple of years, but Taylor still likes his chances in the present.

Helping to make Davis a potential playoff team in 2014 is captain and number eight Tony Oreglia. Oreglia’s leadership will be especially counted on as flyhalf Josh Farnsworth’s spring season is in question after having surgery to repair an injury.

The Aggies have tested themselves early on in 2014, having already taken on the likes of Cal and UCLA, while notching a victory against UC Santa Barbara in a non-conference match at the Dennis Storer Classic. Davis seems to be one of several teams in the California Conference that is young yet capable of matching up well against any team it lines up against.

University of California – Santa Barbara

UC Santa Barbara is another school that was playing DIAA rugby just two seasons ago. The Gauchos are looking to remain competitive this season while building a program capable of competing amongst the big boys of D1A rugby. The good news is Santa Barbara has the right guy to steer itself from respectable to elite, and that is head coach Tim Lewis.

Lewis has plenty of experience coaching both internationally and here in the States. Being that Lewis took over mid-season last year, he looks forward to the years when he will have senior classes that have spent four seasons under his tutelage.

For now, Lewis will be relying heavily on forwards captain Ryan Cook and backs captain Jonathan Prickett. Those two, along with scrumhalf Alex Asturias and flyhalf David Persson, make up half of the remaining seniors on this extremely young club.

Predicted Finish:

$    1)   Saint Mary’s

$    2)   Cal Poly

$    3)   San Diego State

$    4)   UC Davis

$    5)   Santa Clara

$    6)   Sacrament State

$    7)   UC Santa Barbara