Midwest madness: Big Ten preview

D1A Rugby: Midwest madness: Big Ten preview
Photo Credit: Clarkston Photography (left)

BOULDER, Colo. – Big Ten Universities, D1A Rugby’s largest conference, begins its nine-team race for a league title Saturday, Sept. 19. While perennial powers Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin have separated themselves from the other half of the conference in recent years, there are writings on the wall suggesting the competitive gap is closing.

University of Illinois
After failing to win a match in 2014, the Fighting Illini appear much improved heading into the 2015 campaign. Twelve starters from a year ago return to Champaign, Ill., including the team’s top point-scorer in fly half Matt Ramsey, and leading try-scorer Martin Giannetti – who dotted down four times in 2014. Illinois is also happy to welcome back scrum half Mario Lozano, who missed all of last season with a foot injury.

Up front, it all starts with lock Brian Nicolls. The fifth-year masters student is solid in the set piece, but more importantly, provides go-forward ball for the boys in orange. Experience won’t be lacking in the front row, either. The return of seniors John Heaney and Luis Corona should help provide a solid push in the scrum.

There is no doubt that utilizing its team speed will be vital to scoring points this season, but Illinois is also confident that its work in the weight room during the offseason should make it a much more formidable side this fall.

“Expect a much stronger, poised, and confident team than past years,” said team president Rich Daniels. “We have been working on our strength and conditioning on our off days, and come to practice with a sense of urgency that I’ve never seen before with this squad.”


Indiana University
After a suspension for using an ineligible player prevented Indiana from competing in the BTU Championship game following an undefeated conference season, Indiana appears to have the pieces in place to qualify and play in the Big Ten title game.

Only two starters from last year’s team, which accumulated a plus-246 point differential in six matches, graduated from the squad. There is experience all over the pitch for Head Coach Sarasopa Enari to utilize, but it’s Indiana’s back line that is especially loaded. Teddy Terezis, who led the conference in points last year by a wide margin, will demand a lot of attention, while Jake Hidalgo is back in IU red this fall. Hidalgo led the Big Ten with 14 tries in 2014. One of the reasons Terezis and Hidalgo find so much space is the play of Bryce Campbell. The physical center is a load to bring down, but has the skill set necessary to make others around him better.

Indiana is equally excited about the potential of its forwards. Not only is the forward pack experienced, but it’s also the largest the unit has been in recent years in terms of sheer size. Included in this large and veteran group is senior lock Ben Dall and senior back-rower Tyler Graham.

Given the relative ease in which the Hoosiers handled a number of BTU opponents last fall, an Oct. 17 showdown with 2015 D1A semifinalist Davenport should act as a good benchmark for the program.


University of Iowa
Maybe the surprise team out of the conference last fall, Iowa finished third in the BTU and in the D1A Top 20. While last year was a step in the right direction for the Hawkeyes, it might be difficult to repeat 2014’s success after graduating several influential players. Most notably out of the group is David Ryberg, who was tied for second in the Big Ten with 12 tries a season ago.

Increasing his leadership roll will be captain Taylor Young at fly half. Head Coach Jim Estes has a lot of confidence in Young, and believes he can steer his younger back-line teammates in the right direction. The talented but inexperienced youngsters include Nick Brietzman and Dylan Timmons, both of whom showed well in spring sevens, as well as Northern Iowa transfer and inside center Niko Felice.

The forwards have less turnover to deal with as half the unit returns, including the second-row pairing of EZ Nwonye and Bryan Porter.


University of Michigan
After a stellar start to its 2014 season, Michigan dropped three of its final four matches, and ultimately finished fourth in the Big Ten and out of the D1A Top 20. This year, Head Coach Brandon Sparks enters his second season in Ann Arbor, and with that comes an increased level of continuity and familiarity around the program.

Nine starters return to the Wolverine lineup, but the half back pairing must be replaced – which is never an easy task. Scrum half John Palladino is gone, as is fly half Joel Conzelmann and his team-leading 56 points. British import Tohy Rakotovololona takes over the fly half duties and will be surrounding by talented backs Andre Cargil at full back and inside center Cole Van Harn.

First-Team All-BTU prop Jordan Ulmar and his scrummaging will undoubtedly be missed. Fortunately for Sparks, Nick Azzopardi is a solid option at prop, and will lead from the front. His play will be equally important to the team’s success as the play of a couple of dynamic flankers: Chening Duker and Jesse Fenno. Duker, who is the team’s president, has a unique combination of size, speed, and athleticism that makes him especially dangerous in the loose.

Michigan’s shutout loss to Ontario’s Humber College was not a terrible result given the level of its opponent, whereas its most recent win could be a sign of how the Wolverines will perform in the Big Ten. Last Saturday, Michigan paid the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame a visit, and proceeded to run over its hosts, 70-31.

“Our goal is to play the most exciting brand of rugby we can in the Big Ten, and help our squad and athletes get noticed,” explained Sparks. “The Big Ten will be tough this year, like every year, but we want teams to know that if they want to go to the conference title game, that road goes through Ann Arbor.”


Michigan State University
Fans of Michigan State rugby had high hopes for Sparty on the pitch after beginning the season 3-0 last fall. A mid-season skid prevented the improving side from sniffing a spot in the BTU Championship game, but the Spartans did conclude their season with two wins – including reversing a result against Minnesota by beating the Gophers, 35-20.

With 10 starters back in the fold, there is definitely potential for the team to build on its fifth place finish in 2014. Still, to contend for a Big Ten title, superior play will be needed from standout lock Reggie Jackson and Todd Else – who will man the back of the scrum. Where Michigan State can really hurt teams is in the midfield and on the edge. Centers Kyle Gallagher and Aaron Stuk are worthy of opponents’ game-planning around, and wings Salim Lancaster and Mike Vanderlaan can get behind a defense using their tremendous pace.


University of Minnesota
Similar to Michigan State, Minnesota began last year’s BTU season with promise, only to falter down the stretch of its schedule. Other than a forfeit via Nebraska, the Gophers lost their final four matches of the 2014 campaign.

Since the four-game slide, there have been changes in Minneapolis. Former head coach Rob Holder has passed his clipboard off to new lead man Chad Augeson. Also gone from the Gopher program is captain and All-Conference scrum half Jack Butterfield, who completed his eligibility after a number of productive seasons sporting the maroon and gold.

It’s not only Butterfield who’ll be sorely missed, but lock Chris Marais, who has taken his talents to senior club power Metropolis, is another key player who must be replaced. While he won’t be lifting Marais in the lineout anymore, prop Zack Henslee will still be an important part of Minnesota’s set piece. Henslee also demonstrated last year that he not only influences a game in the trenches, but on the scoreboard, as well. The powerful front-rower led the Gophers with four tries a season ago.

With a multitude of turnover this season, a strong freshman class is very welcomed by Augeson and his staff. The newcomers on campus who are expected to make an impact right away include forwards Gabe Cesarini and Jay Kim, as well as back-liners DeShawn Snowden and Michael Turner.


 Ohio State University
Led by 2014 BTU Forward of the Year Satino Cua, Ohio State welcomes six returning forwards to its lineup in 2015. The same level of experience may not be coming back in the back line, but the pieces that will return are exciting ones.

Ian Hiltebrandt, who managed the Buckeye attack from fly half last year, will wear the No. 9 jumper this season. On the edge, winger JoJo Eramo was electric last season. Now a junior, Eramo will again use his eye-popping speed to torch defenses a season after getting beyond the end line 12 times. He’ll have a nice offloading partner in the back three with the addition of Notre Dame College transfer Ronan Forestall.

Several key players did graduate from the program, including half back Luke Hickey and former captain Jeff Chatfield. However, after Ohio State’s B-side went undefeated in 2014, several younger players look more than prepared to make their mark on the first XV this fall.

A 57-7 pounding of Pittsburgh ahead of BTU play is evidence the Buckeyes are hungry to return to their conference title game a year after losing to Wisconsin in the Final. Indiana’s return to postseason eligibility won’t make it any easier, but Ohio State will definitely be in the mix come mid-November.


Purdue University
The Boilermakers’ lone victory last year was the forfeit it received from Nebraska – a team now out of the Big Ten altogether. Surprisingly, its best performance came against a very good Ohio State side, but the loss still produced a 26-point margin.

Even after a difficult 2014, the tide just may be turning for Purdue. The young squad finished fourth in the BTU 7s Series this past spring, and aside from standout hooker Brian Zinser, the team is nearly intact from a year ago. The returnees are highlighted by back-line aces Dian Crowder and Jeremy Lehman, while tight head prop Philip Spagnolo and locks Joe Kruml and Neil Steen will provide much-needed bulk in the forwards.

In contrast to seasons past, Purdue welcomes an experienced freshman class. The newcomers to the West Lafayette campus are small in numbers, but have enough rugby background that they should yield positive dividends immediately.


 University of Wisconsin
A 34-20 victory over Ohio State in the BTU Championship game concluded a special season for Wisconsin in 2014, and Head Coach Nic Tyson believes this year’s squad has the makings to be even better. For starters, the Crass brothers will again don the Badger kit. Hunter is the forward in the family at No. 8, and gets around the park with a relentless urgency, while Tyler is a speed merchant on the wing who led the team with nine tries last fall.

Playing inside of Tyler Crass is Matoko Noudehou. The imposing outside center improved in each week during the 2014 season, and will be one of the very best centers in the Big Ten this year. The danger-men in the back line don’t stop there. Full back Dan Pettay and inside center Dane Fleck are equally capable of gashing defenses with ball in hand.

After relying on its undeniable speed a season ago, Wisconsin will have to be more stout up front this year if it’s to top Indiana, Ohio State, and any other challengers to its crown. Still, team speed will continue to be an advantage, and the Badgers are sure to keep scoreboard operators busy during Big Ten play.


Preseason Back of the Year: Teddy Terezis – Indiana
With so many excellent back-line players returning to their squads in the Big Ten, the recognition for Preseason Back of the Year could have gone to several players. Terezis’ teammates Bryce Campbell and Jack Hidalgo might very well fit the bill by season’s end, but 2014’s BTU points-scorer gets our nod. Terezis came to Indiana as a steady hand in the back line, and now the fly half is a dynamic playmaker who will be a household name beyond the Big Ten when the dust settles this fall.

Honorable Mention: Matoko Noudehou – Wisconsin
No Badger was more important to the team’s run to a 2014 BTU Championship than Noudehou. He’s the type of center opposing 13s hate to line up against: physically daunting, yet skilled and agile. Like Indiana, Wisconsin’s back line is loaded, making Noudehou even more dangerous.

Preseason Forward of the Year: Santino Cua – Ohio State
Cua’s play as a loose forward last year was good enough to earn him BTU Forward of the Year, even though the Buckeye was hampered by an injured shoulder. Sure to eat up a lot of tackles and keep his team on the front foot, Cua will be key to Ohio State’s chances of returning to the BTU Championship game.

Honorable Mention: Chening Duker – Michigan
Duker absolutely took over a few games in 2014 for the Wolverines on his way to a First Team All-BTU selection. However, there were a couple of matches in which the flanker was quieter than you’d like out of such a quality athlete. If he can consistently dominate and build on his six-try season from a year ago – which he’s more than capable of doing – then Duker has a chance to be the best forward in the conference.

Predicted Finish:
  1) Indiana
  2) Wisconsin
  3) Ohio State
  4) Michigan
  5) Michigan State
  6) Minnesota
  7) Purdue
  8) Illinois