BOULDER, Colo. – The sheer dominance of two-time defending D1A National Champion Saint Mary’s makes the California Conference one of the best in the nation. With several marquee wins already under their belt, including a win over third-ranked Lindenwood, the Gaels appear poised to retain their stranglehold over the conference.
Last season, Cal Poly placed second in California and was the only team other than Saint Mary’s to earn a spot in the D1A Playoffs. Back in 2014, four squads from the conference earned postseason bids. Still, nothing is guaranteed in terms of Playoffs for the teams from the Golden State that place second to fifth, making each conference match extremely meaningful.
The competition for the California crown begins Feb. 13 when No. 12 San Diego State hosts No. 1 Saint Mary’s, and No. 20 Santa Clara visits UC Santa Barbara.
Cal Poly State University
The Mustangs have been one of the more consistent teams in D1A Rugby since the competition’s inception, qualifying for the postseason each year. However, the team hasn’t broken through for a major postseason upset or win over Saint Mary’s in several years.
Head Coach James Tesoriero is in his second year with the program, and believes a growing familiarity with his system will benefit the team.
“We have changed only minor parts of our game plan from last year, so there is definitely a greater level of comfort with our strategies heading into the D1A season,” said Tesoriero. “The concepts I introduced when I arrived were new to some players, and it took some time for them to adjust.”
One area of the game Cal Poly has adapted to Tesoriero’s teachings rather quickly is the set piece. Even following the graduation of four-year starting lock Joey Cremen, the Mustangs’ tight five has shown well and continues to win its share of scrums. This is thanks in large part to veteran front-rowers Mickey O’Crowley and Connor Cudeback – who has been selected as a member of the Junior All-American team that will take on Canada Feb. 13.
Cremen is one of six starters from last season who have moved on from Cal Poly – a group that includes center Max Tacket and flanker Matter Ryan. The nine starters that are back in green and gold include several capable footballers. John Joe Murphy is an unquestioned leader at eight man, and back-line standouts Kelii Dominguez and Mark Grzanich are quite reliable.
Other players to look out for are Will Campuzano, a center who had a terrific freshman year before taking time away from campus last year, and a pair of players who are on the mend. Dustin Mollard is a physical back-rower and Alex Wormer is an improving center. Both are currently nursing injuries, but are expected to make an impact for the first XV shortly.
Saint Mary’s College
Three consecutive appearances in the National Championship Final, including winning the past two, have made the Gaels the unquestioned top dog of D1A. The impressive feat has come with too many hours of hard work to count, and an exceptional pipeline of talented players. That pipeline of talent will be tested this year.
Gone from the 2015 Championship team are Cooper Maloney, Kingsley McGowan, Mike O’Neil and Ryan Pratt – who combined for nine All-American selections while at Saint Mary’s. Regardless of the departed talent, the goal for this season is the same as every season – and it doesn’t include a National Championship.
“Our goal has always been to find a way to maximize the talent pool we have on campus,” explained Saint Mary’s Head Coach Tim O’Brien. “We may go 2-9 and walk away pleased. We may see the opposite results and wallow in our underachieving years. A championship is cool, but knowing collectively that we did all we could to be the best we could be is what we’re after.”
Four All-Americans may have graduated last spring, but three players who received those honors last year are back with the Gaels. Holden Youngert will play a pivotal role from the scrum half position, Dylan Audsley is one of the best centers and kickers from the tee in the nation, and Dino Waldren is a two-time All-American who brings necessary skill and strength to the front row.
The returning talent doesn’t end with All-Americans. Loose forward Kevin O’Connor will captain this year’s Gaels, and is joined in the back row with sophomore Vili Helu. The underrated lock pairing of Henry Hall and Mike Tilson will once again man the engine room, and utility back Mike McCarthy always leaves a print on a match. Also worth noting is the return of Nick Schlobohm. Playing wing for the 2014 National Championship team, Schlobohm quietly led the team in tries. After missing the 2015 season due to injury, Schlobohm has moved to full back to replace Maloney.
In case that wasn’t a large enough stockpile of talent, a few players who weren’t part of last year’s National Championship-winning team appear ready to influence this year’s squad. Sophomores Peter Waldren and Ethan Waller have stepped in at prop and hooker, respectively, and have drawn positive reviews. Aaron Matthews is an extremely talented freshman who figures to be Yungert’s first receiver at fly half.
It’s a good thing that the Gaels have a wealth of talent, too, because they’ve once again compiled the most difficult schedule in college rugby. Saint Mary’s already has wins under its belt against Arizona and Arizona State, as well as third-ranked Lindenwood University. Several daunting games still await, including an eight-day stretch in March when the Gaels face Cal, Utah, and BYU. Cramming matches against elite programs into a short period of time shows Saint Mary’s is more concerned with testing itself against the very best rather than winning every game in which it competes.
“You can have a 90-3 record and score gazillions of points, but if you’re not challenged, if you don’t lose lots of nights’ sleep over performance, if your culture is weak and you are not passionate about becoming a team your contemporaries talk about for years, then I’m not sure what you are playing for,” O’Brien stated.
San Diego State University
A 2014 D1A Playoff game saw an Aztec team take the pitch against Colorado with over half the side made up of freshmen. Former San Diego State All-American and current head coach Alex Lichtig has the pleasure of coaching a much older group now.
“Our club has certainly grown in a positive away over the last couple of years, but it hasn’t been ‘growth just for growth’s sake,’” notes Lichtig. “I think it has been a true testament of our players’ commitment and dedication to build a program with the right type of players that fit our mold.”
No player showed more dedication to building the program over the years than now-graduated All-American Kalei Konrad. One of the best college fly halves over the last few years, not many players were more valuable to their college side than what Konrad meant to the Aztecs over his career.
“Kalei has been a great player and leader over the years for us,” complimented Lichtig. “There’s no replacing a player like Kalei, instead, we focus on new players recreating his role for the team in the aggregate.”
Obviously, someone has to take over the No. 10 jumper and that player is junior Austin Switzer – who is also captain of this year’s San Diego State team. Switzer will be wise to target elusive runners Ari Flink and Nick Lupian as often as possible.
In the forwards, junior prop Adahir Aguilera is an emerging leader in the pack, and welcomes the addition of a couple of big-bodied transfers: Gil Covey and Johnny Abdulahad.
Santa Clara University
A playoff team in 2014, Santa Clara was disappointed to miss out on the postseason last spring. Recent recruiting hauls have improved the overall talent on the team’s roster, and the Broncos have hopes to get back to the Playoffs this year.
“The program is always improving,” said Santa Clara Head Coach Paul Keeler. “We now have a full time trainer, paid coaches, and the program has improved as more recruits are looking to Santa Clara University as an option to play rugby and receive a top education.”
Talent is coming into the Bronco program, but, like all teams, quality players must be replaced. Outside center Kyle Dunne, scrum half Mark Kuppenbender, and prop Tyson Dethlefsen each graduated following the 2014-15 season.
New players were blooded in a slate of preseason friendlies, and the Broncos experienced plenty of success. Wins over Cal State Maritime, Fresno State, Stanford, and Wyoming highlighted the nonconference portion of their season. Still, competition will stiffen come California action, so it’s no guarantee that early season success will equate to conference success.
“We sure want that to be the case,” Keeler said of the team’s hopes to continue to reel off wins. “We are in a tough league having the two-time National Champions in your conference. You can’t afford to lose multiple games and hope to make the Playoffs.”
Not the biggest side in the conference, Santa Clara must rely on team speed and athleticism to get behind defenses. Senior Riley White will captain the team from the second row, and will receive plenty of help from blindside flanker Joe McKenna and prop Eric Peters.
In the backs, Andrew Clem is expected to see time at both scrum half and fly half. Wherever the senior lines up, he’s sure to make an impact. The same can be said of junior Asad Braswell, who will slot in at wing and inside center.
Keeler has the fortune of coaching several players who can play multiple positions, but the most dynamic piece to his puzzle is six-foot-five playmaker Jack O’Hara, who plays both eight man and winger.
University of California – Santa Barbara
The Gauchos went a disappointing 0-4 last season in the California Conference, and struggled to be competitive in most of their performances. In an attempt to fix many of its on-field issues ahead of the conference season, Santa Barbara filled its calendar with several friendlies from October to January.
The busy schedule of matches produced mixed results for the program that has lived in the basement of the California Conference the past few seasons. While the Gauchos were more than competent in their victories over Long Beach State and Santa Barbara Rugby Academy, they struggled in defeat to the likes of Cal State Maritime, Grand Canyon University, and former California Conference side Sacramento State.
The roster is still littered with question marks, but head coach Tim Lewis does have Patrick Foran at his disposal. The sophomore lock is a key figure in the Santa Barbara lineup, and gives the Gauchos a fighter’s chance in the set piece.
1) Saint Mary’s
2) San Diego State
3) Cal Poly
4) Santa Clara
5) UC Santa Barbara