Conference Preview: New-look West is wide open

D1A Rugby: Conference Preview: New-look West is wide open
Photo Credit: Ed Navarro

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The 2016 West Conference title appears up for grabs. Last year’s conference champion, the University of Utah, will play out its West schedule that was penciled in prior to the PAC Rugby Conference joining D1A. So while the Utes will play each member of the West, Utah will not factor into the standings and will be in contention for a PAC Conference title in the spring.

The Utes’ exit makes Utah State University’s alignment with the West all the more important. Following an impressive 2015-16 season playing as a D1AA Independent, the Aggies are making the bold move to D1A Rugby and the West Conference.

Utah’s departure opens the door for the conference’s traditional powers to reclaim their place at the top of the West. The Air Force Academy might be the team to seize that opportunity. The Zoomies won the conference two years ago and opened their season by thumping Utah, 66-26.

The University of Colorado, Colorado State and Wyoming have also had their own runs as the West’s best and it wouldn’t be out of the question to see one of the three rise to the top in 2016. New Mexico, on the other hand, has struggled mightily since its 2014 return to the conference. While the Lobos are expected to be much improved, a legitimate shot at the West title is still a year or two away.


The United States Air Force Academy
Air Force has hopes of being a better team in 2016 now that Denny Merideth is in his second season as head coach at the Academy, and the program’s 40-point win over Utah last weekend is an early indication the team will indeed be better.

“This year we expect the team to grow by leaps and bounds,” expressed Merideth. “Last year every player and coach made a commitment to solidify the team around a new culture of play. The foundation was laid last year and over the next few years we will build on that foundation so that the team will sustain a higher level of competition.”

Air Force laid its foundation, in part, by spending the spring semester playing the very best in the country. From February to March the Zoomies left the Air Force Academy to play Cal, BYU, Life and Saint Mary’s. Although the results weren’t in favor of the Zoomies, the harsh lessons on the road gave the team a glimpse of what it takes to play with the top programs in the nation.

“These experiences led to an understanding by the players of the play necessary to compete at the highest levels,” Merideth explained. “This year’s team is virtually the same as last year, so those experiences will translate directly into the preparation for the entire year both from a personal player perspective and the team’s perspective.”

It’s not only growing familiarity between players and coaches or the difficult slate of games from last year that have Air Force looking like a conference champion contender. There is a ton of talent returning to the military academy, as well.

Amongst the starters from that year that take back their jersey this season is Air Force’s best back and forward from 2015. Ben Burmester was one of the best backs in the West last season and will captain this year’s team from the inside center position. Similarly, Grigor Kerdikoshvili was one of the best forwards in the conference a year ago and will marshal the pack. Last year Kerdikoshvili played both second and third row, but will mostly factor into the Zoomies’ loose trio this season.

Like Burmester and Kerdikoshvili, Joey Carl, Colin Culver and Elliot Higgin were All-Conference selections in 2015 and are again in form for Air Force. So too was Hunter Hancock, but he unfortunately suffered a broken leg in training last week and will miss the fall season.


University of Colorado Buffaloes
After a 2-0 start in the West last season, the Buffaloes dropped two of their final three conference matches to fall out of D1A Playoff contention. The second half of the season wasn’t kind to Colorado, but the lessons learned should have its returning players ready for a resurgent season.

“This year I see the strengths of our team as our speed and fitness, as well as our maturing young guys who have been playing together for two to three years now,” said club president and full back Kellen McDonald.

Maturity will be key without All-Conference fly half and Colorado stalwart Jay Brown. He along with scrum half Cory Ketai and center Willie Pevic have graduated. So, too, have the Buffs’ most talented forwards from last year in Adam Page and Christian Wiessing, who excelled playing in the second row for the PRO Rugby Champion Denver Stampede.

Page and Wiessing were a massive presence for the Buffs, but they still have a couple big-bodied athletes up front. Aaron Beckman has moved around the forward pack but makes an impact wherever he lines up, and Blake Rogers is an All-West prop who factors positively in both the set piece and in the loose.

In the back row, Eli Mackay tackles anything that moves and has the motor of a prototypical open side flanker.

McDonald isn’t the only danger-man in Colorado’s back three. Kipp Nilson joins his team president from the wing and has game-breaking speed. The key to the Buffs attack, however, falls on the shoulders of sophomore Evan Clark. The half back is coming off a season in which he was named West Freshman of the Year and will be crucial to the team’s success this fall.

“Our goals are what they’ve always been: to win the West and win the first game of the Playoffs,” said McDonald. “We’re also looking to improve on our previous results in the PAC 12 Sevens tournament.”


Colorado State University Rams
Colorado State stumbled out of the West gates in 2015, forfeiting its first match to Utah and dropping its second fixture to rival Colorado. Although the Rams looked strong in their three-match winning streak to conclude the fall season, including a 43-point smashing of Air Force, the damage done at the front of the season dug a hole Colorado State couldn’t quite climb out of.

“It was a tough start to the season last year,” coach Rod Hartley put simply. “We had lost a few of our senior players and had a young team who were new to the speed of the game at the collegiate level.”

The program took a step backwards by its standards last year, but didn’t feel a complete retooling was necessary. Instead, the coaching staff asked for a greater buy-in from the players, and the roster responded.

“The guys have put in a lot of work in the offseason, supported one another and have grown together into a close-knit group that is very focused on getting better with every practice, and have become true students of the game,” Hartley noted.

The tireless hours applied during the summer have already paid dividends. The Rams went to Wyoming for the 44th annual Jackalope Tournament and went 3-0 on their way to a first-place finish.

“The Jackalope Tournament was a great confidence booster for the team,” said Hartley. “It was really the first time we had seen our new combinations run in live play against all of our main rivals, and afforded us a baseline on where we were at against those great programs.”

It’s also vital that Colorado State beefed up its offseason conditioning program because one of college rugby’s best players won’t be suiting up for the Rams as expected. All-American Ben Pinkelman had planned to return to his college club for its fall campaign after his standout performance for Team USA at the Rio Olympics, but recently had surgery on his shoulder which will likely end his career with the Rams.

‘Pinks’ might be the biggest name missing from Colorado State’s lineup, but he’s not the only standout from last year’s team no longer wearing green and gold. Pinkelman’s bash brother in the back row, Evan Geist, is now making bone-crunching tackles for the Denver Barbarians. Lance Eberhard and Carmine Hernandez, the team’s starting fly half and scrum half the past few seasons, respectively, have also graduated and taken their game down the road to Denver to play for the Barbos.

Adding to the team’s need of replacements in the first XV are the losses of expected returners Luke Engelhaupt and Steven Kentfield. Both are done for the season due to shoulder injuries.

Still, the cupboard of talent is not empty in Fort Collins, Colo. Jaron Beerline, an All-Conference selection last year, will captain the team from his loose head prop position.

“Jaron brings a level of intensity that is the engine of this team,” described Hartley.

Beerline will be joined in the tight five by another capable forward, Daniel Prochoda, while Oliver Jenkins covers the entire park as the Rams’ open side flanker.

Liam Wynne was stellar for Colorado State last year playing full back, and will deservedly get more touches this year at inside center. Scotty Bensley joins the Rams from New Zealand and has already added knowledge and toughness to the back line.

Eberhard’s departure isn’t as devastating thanks to the transfer of former Michigan standout Joel Conzelman. The fly half was Colorado State’s best player during its undefeated run at Jackalope and can control the temperate of a match running with ball in hand or with his precise right boot.

New Mexico University Lobos
The Lobos have yet to earn a West win since returning to the conference in 2014. In fact, the results haven’t been very close.

Head Coach Tom Goslau, who is entering his second season with the program, is trying to end New Mexico’s losing ways thank to some stability in the coaching staff and recruitment to improve the team’s overall numbers.

“This year the focus to improve performance has been in many areas,” explained Goslau. “Aggressive recruitment to add depth and numbers to the club, and by adding regular strength and classroom sessions to our weekly training routine.”

The Lobos might be stronger physically because of the addition of weight room sessions, but they’ll still be one of the smaller teams in the West.

“New Mexico does not bring a lot of size to the pitch,” Goslau said. “So the team aims to use athleticism and speed to open up a wide, fast-paced game offensively, and close down space on defense with solid tactics and tackling.”

Goslau can’t do it alone, though, and will need buy-in from his players. That starts with his captains: inside center Cliff Kindred and flanker Tyler Davis. The two captains will be vital to New Mexico’s attempt of picking up a D1A win, as, too, will be Kyler Gale, who moves in from the wing to play outside center.

The Lobos’ two best players in 2016 didn’t suit up in 2015 due to injury. Fly half Matt Kieth and scrum half Patrick Sarson are healthy and leading the team’s attack. If opposing West sides don’t key in on these two then consider them on upset alert.


Utah State University Aggies
Taking a leap up in competition is never an easy task, but that’s what Utah State wanted when it applied to be in D1A and the West, and the conference felt the Aggies were ready when the team unanimously voted them in. Now the hard work starts.

Head Coach Zac Root has the tough task of getting his players ready to play the country’s best while replacing seven starters. Regardless of the obstacles, Utah State isn’t making any excuses and wants to show well right off the bat.

“We want our presence to be big,” Root said. “We want to be talked about in the division, and solidify the choice made by the D1A West to accept Utah State University Rugby into the conference.”

Before the team earns respect in the West it will need to find suitable replacements for Riley Clark and Adam Painter. Clark was the team’s outside center last year and who the Aggies called on when they needed to break the defense’s line, while Painter wore the No. 10 jumper and was the brains of the operation.

Fortunately they have the right man to replace five-year starter and lock Eric Lyman, who captained the side last year. Marty Johnson will not only be a big help off the pitch as captain, but should be very productive this season playing eight man.

Playing D1AA just a few months ago, the Aggies might not be the most skilled team out of the West in 2016, but they don’t shy away from the grittier aspects of the game.

“I have a hard-hitting team both on offense and defense,” Root added. “Our technical ability can always be improved; however, I have no doubt teams will comment and agree that we play a very demanding game physically.”


University of Wyoming Cowboys
Following a 38-point win over New Mexico to kick off its 2015 season, Wyoming struggled mightily to end the fall. The Cowboys weren’t blown out in many contests, though. In fact, Wyoming lost meaningful games to Colorado and Santa Clara by a combined 12 points.

“Over the past two to three season we have had a relatively young and inexperienced team,” explained Assistant Coach Alex Knowles. “Unfortunately, these tight losses were learning curves as simple errors late in the second half cost us both games. Hopefully, with those lessons over the past season and boasting around eight or nine experienced seniors, we will be able to close out tight games.”

Included in those senior leaders are Wyoming’s captain, Dustin Clark, and back-line leader Connor Rezzonico. Clark is coming off a summer in which he put in a lot of hard work and will serve as an influential player the rest of the forwards can follow. Clark has grown in leaps and bounds since first putting on the Wyoming kit four years ago. His decision-making at fly half will be crucial to the team’s success.

Other Cowboys to keep an eye on are Michael Lewis and Sutton Willis. Lewis is a versatile forward who can play front row or No. 8. Although Lewis isn’t a massive unit, he is a gritty player who exploits every ounce of natural ability given to him and epitomizes everything Wyoming Rugby is about. Willis is another player coming off a productive summer and if he can give Rezzonico cleaner ball than he did a year ago then the Cowboys should be in good shape offensively.

The aforementioned returners, as well as additional players, must step up to replace the production lost from a trio of now-graduated forwards. Jose Campos , Scott Ericsson and Timothy Mendoza had been fixtures in Wyoming’s first-15 for years and won’t be replaced easily.

Neither will Cody Jerabek. The outside center exploded onto the college rugby scene last year, picking up the sport in his final year studying law at Wyoming last season. Jerabek’s impressive frame, natural skill and hard work earned him a place on the AIG Men’s Collegiate All-Americans touring squad to Australia and a contract with PRO Rugby’s Sacramento Express.

Jerabek has his eyes set on a second PRO season, but Wyoming has found another ace in the hole – Dominick Rufran.

The long, lean and incredibly fast Rufran formerly played wide receiver on Wyoming’s football team before joining the rugby program last spring. He was crucial in the Cowboys’ run to the College 7s National Championships and showed well at Red Bull’s Uni 7s Tournament. After spending part of his summer training with Tiger Rugby Academy in Columbus, Rufran now looks to bring his attacking assault to 15s against the West Conference.

Predicted 2016 West Conference Finish:
 1) Air Force
 2) Colorado State
 3) Colorado
 4) Wyoming
 5) Utah State
 6) New Mexico