Allied Rugby Conference Preview
BOULDER, Colo. – The state of Texas is overwhelmingly known for football. Powerhouse football programs reside in every corner of the state, and those elite athletes tend to filter into the Division I football programs that reside in Texas.
The Allied Rugby Conference is doing its part in making Texas known for rugby. Composed of four teams from Texas and one from Oklahoma, the ARC is a well-organized college rugby league with five programs that, for the most part, are seen as programs on the rise.
Conference Commissioner and Baylor Head Coach Nick Lane is building something on the Waco, Texas, campus. Baylor has never been known as a major rugby school, yet in his short time at the school, Lane has been able to recruit a large number of high school student-athletes with valuable rugby experience from their high school days.
The freshman class on this year’s roster is talented, including back row forward Pete Hamm. Hamm is one of many young players who will make Baylor a real threat in a few years, but also talented enough to compete with anyone they face from the ARC.
The talent on this year’s Baylor team is not only provided from the youth. Fullback Stormy Weiss captains the Bears this season. He is a smart player who runs hard lines. Flanker Marcus Appleyard is another player whom Coach Lane will be relying heavily on this spring.
Under the guidance of Lane and the support of the university, Baylor could be a potent team in just a few short years.
“We’re definitely looking for improvement, and the guys have improved a lot over the last two years,” said Lane. “We are trying to produce one of the better rugby clubs and most consistent rugby clubs in the nation.”
University of Oklahoma
If the fall sevens season is any indication of how the spring 15s season will play out, Oklahoma is going to be tough to stop.
The ARC’s automatic bid to the 2013 USA Rugby College 7s National Championship was decided over three events. At these sevens tournaments, Oklahoma not only won each event, but avoided losing a single match to an ARC opponent along the way.
Center Michael Al-Jiboori is the leader and captain for the Sooners. He is a powerful runner and also has the speed to turn a slight gap into a long try. While Al-Jiboori will be leading the backs, Jayce Crowder will be leading the forwards. Crowder will be found playing both prop and hooker in 2014.
Facundo Gatica is now healthy after suffering an injury at the tail end of the fall season. Gatica brings much needed knowledge and experience to the team from the number eight position. Initiating the offense will be transfer student Alex Markowski. Markowski is dealing with a lingering injury but is expected back shortly, and will make an immediate impact when he does.
Missing from the equation is Patrik Jones. The big-bodied bruiser obtained a gruesome lower leg injury at the College 7s National Championship and will be sidelined for the remainder of the school year. Still, Oklahoma has dangerous weapons and a team culture implemented by head coach Jason Horowitz that radiates structure and hard work.
Even after a sevens season which saw Oklahoma being challenged minimally within the conference, the Sooners know nobody is going to lay down for them.
“We don’t take anyone lightly,” said Horowitz. “We respect every single coach we go up against. On any given Saturday any team can come out on top.”
Sam Houston State
When lacking the numbers needed to force competition amongst teammates, it is difficult to compete against adversaries with established rugby programs. That is the issue head coach Frank Rizzo is dealing with at Sam Houston State.
Although the team is not filled out enough to field two full squads, Rizzo is very happy with the quality of student-athletes that are dedicating time into the Sam Houston Rugby Club. The mentality of the team is improving, and the enthusiasm Rizzo’s players are bringing to every practice has the Bearkats moving in the right direction.
Leading this young team will be flyhalf Brent Drost, who if presented clean ball can spark the offense. While Drost helps the team stay aligned vocally, Trace Martin leads Sam Houston by example. The flanker can be found all over the field.
Rizzo understands the team he has at the moment and envisions a formula that could help the Bearkats scratch out a few wins.
“The team is going to rely on defense, keeping the score low and capitalizing on forced turnovers,” he said.
Based off of name recognition alone, many might think Texas A&M to be the favorite from this region. However, head coach Grant Mill’s team is reloading the program while also attempting to play up to the standard of rugby they have built through the years.
The Aggies are forced to replace 12 graduated starters from last year’s team, including captain and AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American Conor Mills.
To make things even more difficult, the few returning contributors from last season have transitioned to new positions. Matthew Theodore is working his way back from an ankle injury all the while taking over the flyhalf position from the departed Mills after playing scrumhalf in 2013. Dylan Sparks will be utilized more on offense going from the 15 jersey to the 13, and Phil Hanson is happily accepting his new role at number eight after proving himself as a lock. Hanson should be one of the more dynamic forwards in the conference.
Captaining the Aggies will be Chris Frazier. The flanker is great in the tackle, a threat offensively, and gives A&M an extremely high lineout retention rate. Mills believes Frazier is the best at his position he has ever coached.
Like many of the coaches in the conference, Mills sees the competition fairly even and believes his boys have a shot at ARC supremacy.
“What’s exciting about the conference this year is that there won’t be any gimmes, everybody’s going to be tough,” said Mills. “If we play right and peak at the right time I think we can battle for the conference championship. I think if we’re healthy our starting 15 can play with just about anybody.”
If the Aggies want to keep up with Oklahoma this spring, this young but talented group will have to build chemistry on the fly.
The Texas Tech Rugby Club has not broken through on a national stage in quite some time. However, if there was ever a season the Red Raiders could find themselves in the midst of a playoff run late in the season, it just might be 2014.
Texas Tech returns more experience than most of its ARC rivals, especially in the backline. Included in this group is Wesley Mitchell. The flyhalf-turned-inside center is a strong playmaker and will be counted on tremendously. Mitchell will be joined by Kyle Kulka, an intelligent runner who has a knack for making accurate offloads.
As for the forwards, head coach Grant Murchison is pleased with the mentality this bunch brings to the pitch.
“Our forwards are always looking for work,” said Murchison. “They are really ruck-oriented, which is great for us. They don’t care too much about playing offense.”
Senior loosehead prop David Tally runs hard, and flanker Michael Madrid’s work rate is second to none, as he gets involved in as many rucks as possible.
In a seemingly wide-open conference, the Red Raiders have plenty to be optimistic about in Lubbock.
$ 1) Oklahoma
$ 2) Texas Tech
$ 3) Baylor
$ 4) Texas A&M
$ 5) Sam Houston State