LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Indiana University has stood at the top of the class in the Big Ten Universities Conference for the last several years, while Ohio State and Wisconsin have been nipping at the Hoosiers’ heels.
The outlook for the 2016 Big Ten season appears relatively similar, as Indiana is the hands-down favorite to win a second consecutive BTU title and the Badgers and Buckeyes look like the teams best equipped to challenge the reigning conference champions.
The best of the rest of the Big Ten is Michigan, and then it’s anybody’s guess. Both Minnesota and Iowa have been near the top of the conference in recent seasons, but finished in the basement of the 2015 standings.
Illinois, Michigan State and Purdue showed glimpses of brilliance last fall and finished in the middle of the BTU pack. Those clubs will have to make additional positive strides in 2016 to contend with the top-third in the conference.
University of Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois was dealt a tough blow early last season when fly half Matt Ramsey, arguably the team’s best player, went down with a torn ACL in just the second conference match of the season. The good news is that Ramsey is healthy again and will move to the centers, where he will be paired with another capable midfielder, Martin Giannetti.
The bad news is Mario Lozano, who filled in for Ramsey with great composure, has graduated. Lozano’s departure is compounded by the loss of a pair of tight five forwards John Heaney and Brian Nicolls. Fortunately, the Fighting Illini believe they have enough talent returning to surpass their two-win season from a year ago.
Joey Lincoln is a dangerous ball carrier and should see time at both fly half and full back. In the forwards, second-rower John Luchok will make the calls in the lineout, while hooker Mitch Ciszewski and prop Ivan Dilnyy will add punch to the front row.
The team’s president, Rich Daniels, has been starting at No. 8 the past two seasons, but could fill in at lock alongside Luchok.
“We have spent the offseason restructuring our offensive and defensive game plans,” explained Daniels. “Everyone’s on board, buying into the schemes and improving every single day. There is a team chemistry there that I haven’t felt since I’ve been at Illinois.”
Indiana University Hoosiers
The Hoosiers haven’t dropped a conference match the past two seasons and ended last year’s run with 34-14 win over Ohio State in the BTU Championship game.
Although Indiana couldn’t get past Lindenwood in the Quarterfinals of the D1A Playoffs, the Hoosiers did prove they can beat some top-notch teams outside of the Big Ten. Indiana bested the Mid-South’s Davenport in a hotly-contested preseason battle and outplayed Rugby East Champions Kutztown at the ACRC Bowl Series in November.
With the talent returning to Bloomington, Ind., there is little doubt Indiana is capable of surpassing last season’s achievements. Fly half Jonathan Enari and center Matt Duncan have moved on, but there is still plenty of firepower in the back line.
Powerful center Bryce Campbell is back in Indiana’s red and white strip after spending a portion of his summer touring Australia with the AIG Men’s Collegiate All-Americans. Campbell might just be the central focus of Indiana’s attack, but All-American winger Jake Hidalgo and 2015’s leading point-scorer in the Big Ten, Teddy Terezis, are also lethal with ball in-hand.
Tyler Graham spent the summer playing sevens with the Chicago Lions and will once again man the back of Indiana’s scrum from his eight man position. Graham, along with lock Travis Katona, will provide plenty of experience and skill to the forwards.
Making Indiana an even scarier threat, to not only the Big Ten but the rest of college rugby, will be the impact of a couple of transfers who have already proven themselves on the D1A stage. Former Davenport University standout and Indiana native Reese Oberlin has returned to his home state to play his senior season with the Hoosiers. Most often used in the back row with the Panthers, Indiana is likely to put Oberlin’s six-foot-five frame in its engine room.
“Reese is going to help us with lineout balls – which we lacked last spring,” said Indiana Head Coach Sopa Enari.
The other transfer student, Tyler Sousley, will factor into the back line. Sousley was making a name for himself playing fullback for Arizona and competed at the 2016 World Rugby U20 Trophy in Zimbabwe with the AIG Men’s Junior All-Americans before transferring to the Midwest’s best college rugby program.
Given the recent success of the Indiana program and the numerous weapons the team returns, the Hoosiers’ goals don’t stop with another conference championship.
“The group is working hard to defend our Big Ten title and also aspire to take a crack that the National title,” Enari said. “It all comes down to hard and diligent work, and we hope the chips fall on our side in the end.”
University of Iowa Hawkeyes
A prosperous 2014 season for Iowa concluded with a win over Michigan in the Big Ten Championship weekend, a third-place finish in the conference and a place in the D1A Rugby Top 20. 2015, on the other hand, wasn’t as successful a season for the Hawkeyes.
The vast majority of starters graduated at the end of the 2014-15 season, including All-American center John Ryberg, leaving Iowa with a less than experienced bunch last fall. The result was not pretty for the Hawkeyes, and plummeted Iowa to the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
“We had a complete rebuild in 2015 as we lost most of a strong 2014 team to graduation,” explained Iowa Head Coach Jim Estes. “We started over with very young players, and this year they’ve matured.”
Included in the group of returnees that were blooded last fall and should be more than dependable this season are forwards Zach Bartling and Niko Felice, as well as centers Nick Breitzman and Mike Nemschoff.
A pair of youngsters are also worth keeping an eye on in rising sophomore and eight man Ethan McGahay and promising freshman flanker Evan McTaggert. Iowa has also attracted a trio of foreign-born players hailing from Australia, Belgium and Tonga who have “really bumped our rugby IQ,” according to Estes.
A roster that is growing with talent, a second consecutive appearance at the College 7s National Championships and preseason wins earlier this month against Northern Iowa and Iowa State have the Hawkeyes thinking 2016’s results will more closely resemble 2014’s.
“There are lots of reasons for optimism, although we might still be a year away,” Estes added. “I see strong growth for our program this fall and expect us to put out our best sevens team yet at Nationals this spring.”
University of Michigan Wolverines
Michigan has put together consecutive winning seasons as it enters Head Coach Brandon Sparks’ third season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have been in contention to play in the Big Ten Championship game each of the past two seasons, but a combined 1-5 record against Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin have prevented Michigan from vaulting itself into the conversation of the conference’s best sides.
“We as a program don’t have the history of winning that the other three have, and a winning mindset is a learned trait, so we are still developing that with this squad,” Sparks explained. “I do, however, think that this year’s team has really embraced the lifestyle that it takes to compete at this level.”
Sparks’ growing familiarity with the program and its roster, along with some valuable returning players have created reason to believe Michigan can get back into the Big Ten Championship conversation after a disappointing end to its 2015 season.
Among the returning players expected to contribute to the success of the 2016 Wolverine team are a group of talented backs that will keep defenses on their heels. Andre Cargill and 2015 All-Conference performer Matt Kasten will roam the back three, while Tohy Rakotovololnoa will see plenty of touches at center. In the forwards, lock Mike Shay will be asked to carry a heavy load on his broad shoulders.
A core group of experienced players that have already spent time in the trenches wearing blue and gold will be key because of the graduation of several key players. Former club president and tackling machine Chening Duker, fellow flanker Jesse Fenno and field general Zack Burns are among the group of players who have moved on.
The loss of a core group of starters won’t stop Sparks and his staff from implementing a style of play that should keep fans entertained all season long.
“Fast, aggressive and fun,” described Sparks. “We want to play an exciting brand of rugby.”
The Big Ten Universities Conference season begins Saturday, Sept. 17, when Michigan State takes on Indiana, Wisconsin hosts Purdue, Minnesota travels to Michigan and Illinois battles Iowa. Ohio State, which is celebrating the club’s 50th-year anniversary this weekend and has over a few hundred alumni in town for the festivities, will kick off its conference schedule at home Sept. 24 versus Purdue.