Conference title up for grabs in the wild West

D1A Rugby: Conference title up for grabs in the wild West

BOULDER, Colo. – The West was one of two D1A conferences to expand this season with the addition of New Mexico into the fold. Another key difference this season for the West is the split in their conference schedule between the fall and spring semesters. In recent history, the West has played the entirety of its league competition in the spring, whereas this season each team will play head-to-head once in both the fall and spring.

Last season witnessed the West send three teams – Colorado, Colorado State and Wyoming – into the D1A Playoffs, with Colorado reaching its second consecutive National Quarterfinal. This year, there is no reason to believe the West does not have the talent to match last year’s number of three playoff teams.

Air Force Academy

Longtime Air Force Head Coach Joe Muehlbauer was proud of his Zoomies’ effort last season, but he knows Air Force lost too many winnable matches. This season, Muehlbauer believes he has the pieces in place to overturn the misfortunes of last year and get back to the playoffs.

For the Cadets of Colorado Springs, they’ll need to replace All-American Jack Bristol before they can even think about improving on last season’s results. Luckily, it looks as though number eight Garrett Jameson is ready to take on the leadership role that Bristol carried so firmly. Jameson is a rugged defender and excellent ball carrier to match.

Teams familiar with Air Force know a physically-punishing 80 minutes can be expected, and this season will be no different with props Taylor Cooksey and James Hanley leading the tight five. Both Cooksey and Hanley run upwards of six-foot-four and 260 pounds and enjoy contact at the breakdown.

A common misconception around the Air Force program is that they lack the speed and athleticism of some other D1A teams – they don’t. This season, Victor Woo has taken over the scrum half duties. Woo has been a mainstay on Air Force’s sevens side, but is now ready to make an impact for the first XV. Adding to Air Force’s speed and athleticism is Zach White’s return from injury. The full back has been chomping at the bit to get back on the pitch, and already made his presence felt with two tries in Air Force’s 61-14 win over New Mexico.

Always looking to push the limits of its players, Air Force has scheduled some very stiff competition around its West Conference matches including matches against Army, Navy, and San Diego State. Even with monumental rivals Army and Navy looming, the Zoomies’ coaching staff knows there will not be any pushovers out of the West.

“I think the West has really improved,” said Muehlbauer. “I think we’ve improved, but so has Colorado State. Wyoming and Colorado are always tough, and New Mexico will be all right once they get their feet underneath them. I think we have an extremely difficult conference out here.”

University of Colorado

The reigning West champions used a high-powered offense to take them all the way to Marietta, Ga., where the Buffs fell to Life University in the National Quarterfinals. However, Colorado was a senior-laden team last season and lost key backline players and All-Americans Sean Kilfoyle and Brian Waneless. The new-look Buffs are much younger, and will rely on their muscle in the pack rather than a long list of dynamic backs that bolstered last year’s roster.

“After our first week we know we have a lot of work to do to get back to where we were last season,” admitted Head Coach Jim Snyder. “There are a lot of good teams in our conference, so it will be a challenge to navigate through this fall schedule.”

The “first week” that Snyder is referring to included an embarrassing 57-0 loss to Colorado State. The Buffs were missing a number of starters, but the scoreline suggests Colorado has more to do than simply get healthy to be competitive.

Helping the Buffalos get back to being a West contender will be hooker Gavin Moscone and back-rower Connor Kissler, each of whom are coming off of stellar freshman seasons.

After the graduation of several steady backline players and early injuries keeping halfbacks Jay Brown and Rhys Watkins off of the pitch, there has been a massive shift in the backline. After contributing from the wings last season, Jake Shomer, Piere Poupeau, and Cory Ketai move inside to fly half, center, and scrum half, respectively.

Snyder is also counting on newcomers to the Boulder campus Zach Niro and Kip Nilson to make immediate impacts. Niro is a flanker with an extremely high work rate, while Nilson is a dangerous backline runner who participated in the high-school Stars and Stripes Camp over the summer.

Colorado State University

Qualifying for the D1A Playoffs has become the norm for Colorado State, but the Rams believe they have the players and structures in place to raise expectations in Fort Collins, Colo., and get beyond the opening round of the playoffs.

“To be honest, we feel we can go a lot further than that,” said Colorado State Backs Coach Ryan Walker. “But no one is getting too far ahead of themselves, and we are taking it one game at a time.”

With the return of Junior All-American and rising start Ben Pinkleman, one can’t blame Colorado State for thinking big this season. Pinkleman took a hiatus from college last spring to play for the Denver Barbarians and has already asserted himself onto Men’s Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin’s radar. Now back with the Rams, Pinkleman is one of the best players in college rugby and will be patrolling the park from his openside flanker position.

Joining Pinkleman in the back row is Evan Giest at number eight. Giest is a big body, and along with Pinkleman will be making things difficult for opposing teams at the breakdown.

Although Colorado State lost All-American prop Stephen Karas to graduation, the Rams return three front-rowers who all possess valuable playing time for Colorado State’s first XV in Jaron Beerlire, Jackson Brockway, and Eric Hamilton.

In the backs, Joe Sullivan has been a consistent performer since transferring from Arkansas State, and Luke Engelhaupt is a danger-man in the 13 jersey. The back three for the Rams is young but talented, with freshmen Liam Wynne and Jack Connor already making themselves quite comfortable running with the first XV.

Last week Colorado State made noise by blowing out Colorado, 57-0. The two bitter rivals are known for competing against one another in nail-biting fashion, making the decisive shutout so shocking. The result may have, in part, something to do with the Rams hosting an elite camp with the help of Canterbury Rugby Football Union and led by Super Rugby’s Crusaders Assistant Coach Tabai Matson.

“The players loved it,” proclaimed Walker. “Our entire A-side attended the camp and a few of our B-side players attended as well. I think it was really eye-opening for the guys. A lot of them have intentions of taking their rugby to the next level, so for them to be coached by a guy who currently coaches 13 All Blacks and one of the best professional sides in the world was a great learning experience.”

Colorado State is excited about the prospect of continuing and expanded the elite camp for both players and coaches as a yearly tradition. But for the here and now, the Rams have their sights on a West Championship.

University of New Mexico

The players on the New Mexico rugby team made their intentions loud and clear last year that they wanted back in the West Conference and to play at the highest level of college rugby. Now, after strengthening their numbers and doing everything asked of them administratively, they’ve earned the right to play in one of the better conferences in the country.

“The players worked their tails off to do everything on and off the field to get back into the West Conference and into D1A,” said Lobos Head Coach Michael Hardy.

Still, it remains uncertain how New Mexico will perform now that they are back in the West.

“The expectation right now is to play competitive games,” said Hardy. “These teams we are playing are some of the top-rated teams in the nation. So, to be competitive with them is our goal until we can build on our numbers and skill level.”

Giving the Lobos an opportunity to stay competitive this fall will be explosive winger Dasante Browne and inside center Joe Krigbaum. Hardy has also received early contributions from a number freshman who just wrapped up stellar high school careers.

University of Wyoming

Coming off of a season that earned the Cowboys a place in D1A’s Playoffs, there is reason for optimism in Laramie, Wyo. Sure, Wyoming is not much more experienced than last year’s team after graduating some key forwards and scrum half Alex Knowles, but the team does return players who have won tough matches in their careers and are a bit more athletic this season.

“Overall we are incredibly inexperienced, but really excited to play,” said Head Coach David Finoff.

The experience begins with captain Derek Aggerman, who takes over the ‘C’ while the Cowboys await the return of last year’s captain Ben Pacheco who is still recovering from a ruptured patellar tendon. Wyoming will also need a group of sophomores to progress rather rapidly in halfback Connor Rezzonico and props Michael Lewis and Sam Jacobs.

Behind Lewis and Jacobs is second-rower Scott Ericsson, while Jose Campos and Timothy Mendoza must be disruptive loose-forwards for the Cowboys.

Bobby Watkins, who has spent time in the centers, is slotted as one of Wyoming’s wingers. He has the athleticism and reps under his belt to make big plays. Coach Finoff is also excited about what his transfer from Canada, Jonathan Arndt, can do to help the team.

Laramie is never an easy place to play for opposing teams, so if the Cowboys can steal a couple of matches on the road they will have as good a shot as any to win the West.

Predicted Finish:

  1. Colorado State
  2. Air Force
  3. Wyoming
  4. Colorado
  5. New Mexico