Utah strengthens an already solid conference: West preview

D1A Rugby: Utah strengthens an already solid conference: West preview
Photo Credit: JD Black (left)

BOULDER, Colo. – The West Conference produced two D1A Playoff teams last year in Air Force and Colorado State. Both sides proved to be head and shoulders above the rest of the competition in the Rocky Mountains, but might be looking up to Utah this season. The seventh-ranked Utes joined the West in the offseason, and have the necessary tools to make another run to the D1A Quarterfinals and beyond.

United States Air Force Academy
Since winning the West last year, Air Force has gone through a major makeover. For starters, longtime head coach Joe Muehlbauer has stepped away from the program. Replacing Muehlbauer is Denny Merideth, but the new lead man won’t go it alone. Working with the back line will be former Eagles Paul Emerick and James Paterson. The two former pros have 65 caps between them, and should instill a dynamic flare in the backs.

Two guys who won’t benefit from the tutelage of Emerick and Paterson are Victor Woo and Calvin Johnson. Both players were All-West performers last year, and Woo captained the team. Also graduated from the Academy is No. 8 Garrett Jameson, whose ball-carrying skills will be missed.

Still, the Zoomies do bring back a pair of danger men in senior fly half Matt Fischer and center Ben Burmester. In the forwards, junior James Hanley will be a key cog in the second row. Hanley proved last year he has the ability to make a big difference in the set piece.

True to form, Air Force will look beyond the West Conference to test itself on the pitch. During the fall, the Zoomies will write a new chapter in their rivalries with Navy and Army, and take on BYU in February.

University of Colorado
The Buffaloes’ Oct. 2 West opener against rival Colorado State rings in a new era of Colorado Rugby. USA Eagles legend Luke Gross takes over as head coach in Boulder, and will be assisted by former Scotland 15s and sevens international Murray Wallace.

With new leadership cemented in the coaching staff, Gross will need a leadership core to step up amongst his roster following the graduation of last year’s forwards captain, Jean-Claude Trublet, and backs captain, Jake Shomer. A couple of seniors, Adam Page and Blake Rogers, headline a capable group of forwards. Page is a go-forward eight man who can both carry draped defenders and make a nifty offload, while Rogers is a big-bodied loose head prop with plenty of experience and a surprising bit of skill.

Jay Brown returns to handle play-calling duties at fly half. The senior No. 10 will be responsible for making sure fellow back liners Kipp Nilson, Kellen McDonald and Rhys Watkin get their share of touches.

Boosting the Buffs’ first XV is scrum half Evan Clark and Christian Weissing. Clark, just a freshman, plays well beyond his years and should provide a steady hand at the base of the ruck. Weissing is a former U-20 standout who was enrolled at Colorado last year, but played for the Glendale Raptors and AIG Men’s Junior All-Americans. This year, the South African-born lock will wear black and gold.


Colorado State University
The 2015-16 season for Colorado State included wins over Air Force and Arizona and a top-10 finish. However, when it came Playoff time, the Rams laid a dud on the road in their 69-12 flame out against Lindenwood. The question this year in Fort Collins, Colo., is if Colorado State has enough firepower returning to not only get back to the Playoffs, but also rectify last season’s brief postseason appearance.

The most important piece to the Rams’ puzzle is back on campus in Ben Pinkelman. The loose forward, who lined up in the centers at times last season, is the best forward in the West and one of the very best in the country. As special a player as Pinkelman is, the 57-point loss to the Lions last spring is proof the All-American is going to need help around him if Colorado State is to make a deep Playoff run.

The Rams, who were able to push around many of their opponents last year, will be a little bit lighter in the forwards this season. Gone are prop Jackson Brockway and lock Kevin Cassel, but back is No. 8 Evan Giest. Forming a ferocious combination in the loose forwards with Pinkelman, Giest can bring ball carriers down with ease, and doesn’t go down easily when he has an opportunity with ball in hand.

Colorado State averaged 46 points per conference match last season, and could surpass that number this season with the experience and skill returning in the back line. Lance Eberhard and Carmine Hernandez are senior veterans in the half back positions. The duo will seek to put full back and club president Liam Wynne in space. The second-year Ram is coming off an excellent freshman campaign, and will be vital to the team’s attack given the injury to Luke Engelhaupt. The outside center is currently on the shelf, and likely to miss the majority of the fall season.


University of Utah
A season ago, Utah joined D1A Rugby as an Independent. Now, the Utes will again compete in college rugby’s elite competition, but as a member of the West.

The only Independent team to qualify for the 2015 D1A Playoffs, Utah eventually got past Cal Poly to advance to the postseason’s Quarterfinals before being bounced by Saint Mary’s. As a member of the West, the Utes will seek a conference title and a deep run in the Playoffs, but will have to do so without two players who have been immensely important to the program in recent years – Danny Christensen and Tonata Lauti.

The departure of two All-Americans who were both vocal leaders and line-breaking playmakers won’t be easy, but Director of Rugby Mark Down believes several players have already begun to step up to fill the void in leadership, especially scrum half Nate Kingsford and prop Spencer Vickery. Joining Vickery in the front row will be two more standouts in prop Benj Mills and Honorable Mention All-American Chad Gough, who has moved around Utah’s lineup, but figures to spend time at hooker. In the loose forwards, Gabe Ruflin will be expected to be a solid ball carrier in both 15s and sevens this year.

With 12 starters in total back in red and white for Utah, the back line is equally experienced as the forwards. Center Taylor Thomas was another Honorable Mention All-American a season ago, and Casey Raymond has try-making ability on the wing. A luxury Utah will have this season is the addition of BYU-transfer Josh Webber. A natural fly half, Webber figures to replace a lot of the ball handling and distributing left behind by the graduation of Christensen and Lauti.

Never a team to back away from tough contests, Utah has once again filled its calendar with some of the best opponents in the nation. After playing Saint Mary’s three times last year, the Utes will once again face the reigning National Champion. While a match against No. 5 Army is tentatively in the works, one game you can count on is the Wasatch Cup – the annual match between the Utes and in-state rival BYU.

University of New Mexico
New Mexico’s return to the West Conference last season could have gone better for the Lobos. The team went winless in D1A competition, and has only five returning starters off of which it can build. Not only is the roster in the midst of a major makeover, but there is a new head coach in place in Tom Goslau.

“The young and inexperienced Lobos are excited to test themselves against all their rivals this season,” said Goslau. “Having returned only a handful of starters, the team is rebuilding and revitalizing the strong rugby tradition at New Mexico.”

The forward pack will be the Lobos’ more experienced unit. Two seniors return to the front row in John Unger and Steve Youngblood. In addition, Dustin Soflin is also a senior, and will captain the forwards from the back of the scrum. The backs lost a bit of athleticism due to graduation, including fly half Francisco Fluxa. In the meantime, sophomore center Cliff Kindred has become the leader of a youthful back line.


University of Wyoming
After reaching the D1A Playoffs in 2014, Wyoming didn’t make the cut last spring. The Cowboys had to settle for ties in both of their encounters with Colorado. A couple of additional points on the board, and Wyoming would have finished as a .500 squad and a potential Canterbury D1A Top 20 team.

As many college rugby fans have come to expect, Wyoming is anticipating physical play from its forward pack. Vice captain Tim Mendoza is set to run rampant from the back of the scrum in his second season in the Cowboys’ No. 8 jumper, while fellow All-West member and loose forward Jose Campos will spearhead an aggressive defense.

The talent doesn’t only reside in the loosies, with the welcomed return of powerful front rowers Sam Jacobs and Michael Lewis. In the backs, captain and full back Brendon Kozman will be asked to make up for the playmaking ability of now-graduated wing/center Bobby Watkins, and Connor Rezzonico will direct traffic at fly half.

Thus far in the fall, Wyoming has seen some positive returns. At the 43rd Jackalope Tournament, the Cowboys saw several greener players make positive strides. More recently, the team wrapped a training camp at Jackson Hole Moose Rugby’s Field of Dreams in Alpine, Wyo., that included a 43-14 victory over Montana State.

“Given our success at the Jackalope Tournament and in Alpine, I think we have a nice foundation for the season,” Head Coach David Finnoff said.


Preseason Back of the Year: Taylor Thomas – Utah
Former teammates and headline thieves Danny Christensen and Tonata Lauti did plenty on the pitch to make Taylor Thomas’ 2014-15 a quiet success. Of course, Taylor did enough to earn his Honorable Mention All-American status, but was especially big for the Utes in the team’s biggest games. The center from Idaho doesn’t necessarily do any one thing on the pitch out of the ordinary, yet consistently supplies his teammates with everything you could ask for out of a midfielder.

Preseason Honorable Mention: Ben Burmester – Air Force
No team in the West scored more points last season than Air Force, and Burmester was a big reason why. This season, without his center counterpart, Calvin Johnson, supporting him, Burmester will be asked to carry an even heavier load for the Zoomies.

Preseason Forward of the Year: Ben Pinkelman – Colorado State
It doesn’t matter if he is playing 15s or sevens; flanker or center, Pinkelman is an absolute terror on the pitch. With a combination of speed and length, ‘Pinks’ can fend his way to the try zone from anywhere on the park. However, when the All-American gets near the end line, he’s nearly impossible to stop from dotting down.

Preseason Honorable Mention: Benj Mills & Spencer Vickery – Utah
The return of two large and talented props to Utah’s front row made it too difficult to choose between them. Mills and Vickery combine for 500 lbs. bound to their hooker, and have enough spark in their boots to make an impact with ball in hand. Teams in the West might have trouble in the set scrum against No. 7 Utah thanks to these two.

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