PAC’s best recognized in All-Conference teams, end of season awards

D1A Rugby: PAC’s best recognized in All-Conference teams, end of season awards
Photo Credit: Alex Ho & Connie Hatfield

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The first year of the PAC Rugby Conference being aligned with D1A Rugby was similar to previous seasons in that California won the conference title with an undefeated record. Given Cal’s domination in the PAC, it’s no surprise that 13 Golden Bears were honored with postseason accolades.

D1A Playoff Semifinalist Arizona checks in with the second-most tallied players on the All-Conference list with seven.

PAC Rugby Conference 1st Team Forwards:

Kevin Sullivan, prop, Cal: Who said props aren’t supposed to lead the team in tries? Sullivan was one of three Bears to post 10 tries on the season – tied for the most on the squad. One of his 10 scores came in Cal’s Varsity Cup Final victory over Arkansas State in which Sullivan was named Man of the Match.

Steven Branham, prop, Arizona: The former Junior All-American standout had another great year in Tucson, Ariz. After playing mostly hooker during his freshman campaign, Branham was used at prop this year. The slight change in scenery did little to hinder his play; in fact, Braham may have found his new home.

Michael Cesar, hooker, USC: Cesar is no slouch in the set piece, but he takes 1st-Team honors thanks to his dynamic ball-carrying abilities. The hooker scored an eye-popping six tries in just four PAC matches.

Sean Coleman, lock, Arizona: Another one of Arizona’s many U20 All-Americans, Coleman is the Wildcats’ key target in the lineout. The 6-foot-4-inch Coleman wasn’t just a big help to the team’s set piece, but a dangerous figure in the loose, too.

Connor Sweet, lock, Cal: Sweet’s impressive career in Berkeley peaked during the lock’s senior season. The Xavier High School product has been in integral part to Cal’s lineout and a physical presence on the defensive side of the ball.

Drew Gaffney, loose forward, Cal: When a player of Thomas Robles’ ability goes down with a season-ending injury, the vast majority of college teams wouldn’t have a replacement of equal comparison. That’s not the case at Cal. As Robles’ backup, Gaffney jumped right in and dominated from the back of the scrum. Thick yet nimble, Gaffney powered his way to seven tries, including a three-score performance against Arizona State.

Nic Mirhashem, loose forward, Cal: Mirhashem isn’t the biggest loose forward in the conference, but not many players in the PAC play with the passion and work rate that he does. Often the first player to a breakdown, Mirhashem is a tackling machine with multiple years left in blue and gold.

Gabe Ruflin, loose forward, Utah: An All-American in sevens, Ruflin is as dangerous with ball in hand as any back in the PAC. Utes Head Coach Jon Law described his eight man as a “game-changer.”


PAC Rugby Conference 1st Team Backs:

Keanu Andrade, scrum half, Cal: Entering the season Cal had the tough task of replacing All-American scrum half Nick Boyer. Not only did Andrade manage to fill the role as just a freshman, but did so with flying colors. His 10 tries were tied for the most on the team, and he presented fly half Russell Webb with consistently quick and accurate ball from the base of the ruck.

Kyle Rogers, fly half, Arizona: Rogers saw some minutes at full back early in the season, but by the time Arizona Head Coach Sean Duffy found his best back line combination he was back at his preferred No. 10 jumper. The junior not only guided the team as its captain, but was extremely dangerous in attack as both a runner and distributor.

Patrick Barrientes, center, Cal: An injury kept Barrientes out of the lineup for a couple of games, but the senior still managed to find the try zone four times. Four tries in eight games is a strong strike rate, but Barrientes’ real worth comes from his hard work and ability to do the little things right.

Niall Barry, center, UCLA: The Bruins didn’t have their best season in 2017, but it wasn’t for the play of their captain. Barry was once again superb for UCLA from the outside center position.

Sam Cusano, wing, Cal: It takes a special player to make an impact at Cal during their freshman year like Cusano made. The winger was tied for the team lead with 10 tries, including a hat trick in the Varsity Cup Final. Cusano also displayed a scrappy toughness on defense, which could see the flyer move to the centers later in his career to get the ball in his hands more often.

Dante Weeks, wing, Arizona: The slight but extremely explosive Weeks has been a danger man since arriving at Arizona a few years ago. This year the junior was at his best when the Wildcats needed him most. During Arizona’s run to the D1A Semifinals, Weeks scored a try in each of the team’s three playoff matches.

Jake Goena, full back, Cal: The Bears lost one of their best playmakers when Troy Lockyear was lost for the season with an injury. Fortunately for Cal, Goena moved over from wing and didn’t miss a beat wearing the No. 15 jersey. His hat trick against UCLA accounted for three of nine tries the junior scored on the season.


PAC Rugby Conference 2nd Team Forwards:

Caleb Meyer, prop, Utah: Usually the phrase “relentless motor” is used to define loose forwards, not props. However, that’s exactly how Utah Head Coach Jon Law described Meyer. An intimidating figure for opposing players, Meyer’s experience as a United States Marine also makes him a leader amongst his teammates.

Damon Wiley, prop, Cal: This year’s Varsity side at Cal was one of the program’s youngest in a very long time, and Wiley is an exciting part of the Bears’ youth movement. The freshman opened the year fighting for playing time, but closed the season with a start and 56-minute shift in the Varsity Cup Final.

Yanick Mendes, lock, UCLA: Yanick supplies plenty of push in the Bruins’ scrum, but ask rivals USC about the lock’s ability with ball in-hand. Yanick scored a pair of tries against the Trojans this season.

Bronson Teles, lock, Arizona: A High School and Junior All-American, Teles no doubt has plenty of tools. The freshman occupied one of two spots in Arizona’s engine room, but he gets around the park like a loose forward.

Christian Bernard, loose forward, UCLA: Bernard provided a mean streak for the Bruins this year, but the sophomore wasn’t just an enforcer. The openside flanker provided go-forward ball on a consistent basis.

Luc Desroches, loose forward, USC: After an All-American career that included three Division II National Championships with Minnesota-Duluth, Desroches spent a graduate season playing eight man for the Trojans. Both an intelligent technician of the game and a freak athlete, Desroches was a wise choice for USC’s Team MVP honors.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, loose forward, Arizona: Fitzpatrick had an excellent sophomore season after tallying the second-most tackles during his freshman year. A tough character at the contact point, Fitzpatrick is also a valued playmaker on attack. He had multi-try performances against Santa Clara and Utah Valley, and also dotted down in the Wildcats’ Quarterfinal win over Baylor.


PAC Rugby Conference 2nd Team Backs:

Matt Rogers, scrum half, Arizona: Just a freshman, Rogers earned the starting nod at scrum half and formed a dynamic half-back duo with his older brother, Kyle. After scoring two tries during the PAC season, Rogers added two more during the D1A Playoffs.

Alex Walsh, fly half, Arizona State: Walsh was a bright sport for the Sun Devils during a dim season. The fly half recorded 30 points in just four PAC matches.

Peter Akerele-Ale, center, Arizona State: Akerele-Ale’s production didn’t often show up on stat sheets, but the outside center was no less effective for the Sun Devils this season.

Aidan Flynn, center, Cal: Flynn, who saw time at full back, as well, scored five tries in just six starts this season. One of the junior’s scores came in Cal’s Varsity Cup Final win over Arkansas State.

Kurt McNally, full back, USC: A former age-grade All-American in Indonesia, McNally showed well against PAC competition after spending his freshman season at Pepperdine.

Kelsin Pupunu, full back, Utah: Other than Sam Cusano, no freshman in the conference was more impressive this season than Pupunu. The first-year Ute is loaded with athleticism and skills, but his coaches are most excited about his high rugby IQ.


Academic Achievement Award: Alejandro Gonzalez – USC & Felix Le Merle – Cal
Fellow Trojan Robert Sieh matched Gonzalez’s 3.8 GPA, but Gonzalez accomplished his impressive academic marks while studying Aerospace Engineering. Teammate and All-Conference performer Luc Desroches was nearly as impressive, scoring a 3.47 GPA in Aerospace Engineering.

Staying above water in the classroom at Cal while playing Varsity rugby is a tough enough task. Le Merle, though, won the Golden Bear Award for having the highest GPA on the team for a second straight season. The flanker is set to graduate later this spring with a degree in Geography after just three years on campus. Le Merle also scored a try in his lone Varsity start of the season.

Freshman of the Year – Sam Cusano, Cal:
After captaining Granite Bay to a High School National Championship, there was no question that Cusano would be ready to contribute right away to Cal’s top-side. Still, a team-leading 10 tries would have been tough to predict.

Forward of the Year – Chad Gough, Utah:
There was no drop off in Gough’s performances this year after the 2016-17 season earned him a trip to Australia with the AIG Men’s Collegiate All-Americans. Just as impactful in the set piece as he is in the loose, Gough leaves it all on the pitch.

Back of the Year – Anthony Salaber, Cal:
The senior appears to be on his way to a third All-American selection in 15s after a great season that saw the center score five tries. A mistake-free player, it’s not only that Salaber does the little things right, but he can make the big play, too. Against Bay Area rivals Saint Mary’s, Salaber intercepted a pass from California Conference Back of the Year Michael McCarthy and returned the ball underneath the posts for a five-pointer.

Player of the Year – Russell Webb, Cal:
A five-year starter at Cal, Webb will be remembered as one of the great Golden Bears. The fly half plays with such smoothness, he often makes the most challenging plays look easy on the pitch. It’s no surprise that the Eagles coaching staff has its sights on Cal’s captain.