Gaels beef up for challenging season

D1A Rugby: Gaels beef up for challenging season
Photo Credit: Travis Prior

BOULDER, Colo. – A rugby program couldn’t possibly make three consecutive National Championship appearances by resting on its laurels. After accomplishing that exact feet, including winning the past two National Championships, you can bet Saint Mary’s College isn’t waiting for the New Year to prepare itself for another title defense.

Last year, the Gaels competed in sevens during the fall, but did so with a group of developing underclassmen who needed more time with ball in hand. Meanwhile, the bulk of players who saw time with the first XV that won the 2014 D1A National Championship were held out of sevens activities, and spent the valuable months preparing their bodies for a rigorous season.

This fall, Saint Mary’s didn’t host a third Battle in the Bay sevens tournament, as the entire program is already eyeing its 15s campaign.

“The fall is the time when we put in a bulk of our work, building the base of our strength and endurance for the season,” explained scrum half Holden Yungert. “It’s the time when we do our best to become bigger, faster, and stronger in preparation for the upcoming season.”

The additional strength, size, and mental resolve will again be a necessity for the Gaels. With the aim of becoming better rugby players, and ultimately a better team, Saint Mary’s has once again compiled the most difficult schedule in college rugby.

Prior to its Feb. 13 California Conference opener at San Diego State, Saint Mary’s will trudge through September, including a three-week stretch encompassing five high-level matches. The difficult slate begins Jan. 9 with a battle against USA Club Rugby’s fifth-ranked San Francisco Golden Gate. Following their clash with Golden Gate, the Gaels head to the desert for games against Arizona and Arizona State, and conclude the month by hosting a pair of top-five teams in Lindenwood and Utah.

The challenging fixtures will continue to mount in February and March as the boys from Moraga, Calif., will contend against Brigham Young University and host Bay Area rival Cal before traveling to Utah for rematches against the Utes and BYU. A week after returning from Utah, No. 1-ranked Saint Mary’s departs for a week-long tour of New Zealand for its spring break.

“We’re excited to say the least,” Yungert says of the upcoming schedule. “It’s certainly intimidating looking at such a competitive schedule on paper, but each week brings a different challenge that the players are looking forward to. Playing the highest competition as often as possible ultimately improves the team’s game in the best ways possible.”

In order to navigate such a demanding schedule, lesser-known players must elevate their games in terms of playmaking and leadership. Gone from last year’s squad are All-Americans Kingsley McGowan and Mike O’Neil, as well as the team’s captain from the past two seasons, Cooper Maloney.

Yungert, who went from watching the 2014 Championship game from the sideline to starring in last year’s Final against Life, knows all about stepping up and filling a role.

“While it’s always sad to see great players like that go, we still have many returners and some very strong leaders,” reconfirmed Yungert. “The coaches and players each look to raise the bar, and see who will be the next man to step up.”

When asked who in particular will be this year’s breakout players, the All-American scrum half said it’s a bit premature to designate any one player.

“It is a little early to say,” Yungert confessed. “I think our winter training and early season games will inevitably answer that.”

The path to a fourth National Championship game in four years begins this Saturday when the Gaels welcome Olympic Club of San Francisco to Saint Mary’s Rugby Stadium for the first XV’s initial run out of the season.