BOULDER, Colo. – Just because the Big Ten, Rugby East, and the West are the only conferences currently competing in their 15s seasons doesn’t mean that the three other conferences remain stagnant until their spring seasons. The Mid-South, Red River, and California conferences all remain active throughout the fall in preparation for conference play.
The California Conference is home to the current D1A Top 20 number one and reigning Conference Champion, Saint Mary’s, and also has two other members currently ranked in the Top 20: No. 12 Cal Poly and No. 16 San Diego State. Both Santa Clara and UC Santa Barbara will continue to improve as they are still in their early years of D1A competition. Some sides will be playing sevens, others will focus on 15s, but all sides are preparing for what will be a competitive year in the California Conference.
The Mustangs ended a very good season with a tough loss to Utah in the D1A Playoffs. The side went 3-1 in conference play, a great feat in a premier conference, came second in the conference behind eventual D1A Champion Saint Mary’s, and finished No. 7 in the D1A Top 20 poll. The team graduated seven or eight first team players, and have the pieces to continue to play at a dominant level throughout the season.
Over the summer, sophomore loose head Connor Cudeback attended the Collegiate Stars and Stripes camp after being named an Honorable Mention All-American the season before. He will return to the team, and be able to contribute immensely after playing alongside some of the best players in the country. Cal Poly Head Coach James Tesoriero also took time out of his summer to improve, heading to Japan for an opportunity to shadow former New Zealand Head Coach Graham Henry and former All Blacks captain Reuben Thorne. He will undoubtedly be able to implement some coaching techniques he learned from the prominent coaches to improve the Mustang side.
Cal Poly will play in some sevens tournaments early in the fall semester before turning its attention to 15s at the beginning of winter. The Mustangs will host the West Coast Sevens tournament Oct. 10, which will feature Cal, UCLA, and D1A teams Arizona and San Diego State. Cal Poly and San Diego State played in the USA Rugby College 7s National Championships last year. Cal Poly will play in a pool with Arizona and University of Nevada-Reno. The games will be broadcast on USA Rugby TV.
Cal Poly will also participate in Cal’s Autumn 7s Rugby tournament in Berkeley, Calif. From there, they will turn their attention to 15s for the remainder of the semester, which includes proposed matches against Stanford and Santa Barbara Rugby Academy.
“Our focus for the spring is threefold,” said Tesoriero. “One: physically prepare for the winter 15s season, and to ensure the guys at the top of our program continue to get stronger, faster, and fitter. Two: to use the friendly fall matches to assess our incoming players and lower-grade players to determine the best mix for our first 15. Three: to build our player depth by getting competitive games across all grades. We anticipate fielding four teams through the fall, so getting regular fixtures for all four teams will be a challenge.”
The Mustangs will continue to practice and train throughout the offseason, and look to have their name in the mix for the best in D1A once playoffs roll around at the end of spring semester.
San Diego State
When you lose an All-American, your next season could be a hard one. But in the eyes of San Diego State Head Coach Alex Lichtig, it could create an opportunity.
“If we were to focus on replacing those players, we would surely fail,” said Lichtig. “However, if we focus on how those players affected team performance and adjust our current team to meet and exceed that level, we will continue to improve and grow as a club.”
The Aztec’s lost All-American fly half Kalei Konrad to graduation, but thanks to some elite training and New Zealand connections that Konrad had during his time at SDSU, the future is bright for the team. Six Aztecs were able to make their way to New Zealand to work at the Auckland Rugby Academy. One player who came back with greatly improved skills was Austin Switzer. According to Coach Lichtig, Switzer returned to the states with a “higher skill level and better decision making under pressure. He also sees the game very well.”
The Aztecs will participate in the West Coast Sevens tournament at San Louis Obispo. They are in a pool with Arizona State, one of the semifinalists from the College 7s National Championships, and University of Southern California. SDSU will participate in a couple smaller tournaments and exhibition matches throughout the fall to get its young players game experience, before more controlled situational practices to prepare for the spring.
The Aztecs, who finished last year at 2-2, will be well prepared by Lichtig once the season starts with a match against No. 1 Saint Mary’s Feb. 13.
“I think we can sum up our expectations and outlook with one word that describes how our coaches feel as we get back into practice,” said Lichtig. “Excited.”
The Gaels have been to the last three National Championships, winning two of them. There is no question they are one of the most dominant rugby teams in the country, competing constantly on the highest level, and the outlook is for the Gaels is to continue that reign this season despite some key losses.
The 2014-15 Men’s Collegiate All-Americans list was littered with Saint Mary’s players. The First-Team 15s list had five Gaels, and the Second-Team had two. Saint Mary’s lost four of those players to graduation, including captains Cooper Maloney and Mike O’Neil, and Ryan Pratt and Kingsley McGowan. Center and D1A National Championship MVP Dylan Audsley returns for the Gaels, a player who made an impressive impact in the title game against Life. They also return All-American prop Dino Waldren, who will spearhead the front line.
Losing four All-Americans would hurt any team, but the Gaels return two, as well as many pieces that helped immensely in their title run last year. They will have stiff competition for the hooker, fly half, and full back spots that are now vacant of last year’s seniors, but Head Coach Tim O’Brien keeps his goals the same.
“My outlook remains consistent: play respectable, attractive rugby which keeps the participants, coaches, and supporters engaged,” said O’Brien. “Our goals are clear and concise: end the 15s campaign May 7 with a blue ribbon in hand.”
The Gaels will start in November with some exhibition games before kicking off their California Conference campaign against San Diego State in February. One match to keep an eye out for will be when Saint Mary’s plays Lindenwood in Moraga, Calif., Jan. 22, in what will be a rematch of the 2014 D1A Semifinals.
University of California, Santa Barbara
The Gouchos will be playing in their fourth year in the California Conference this season, and are looking to continue to grow, a task that may be hard after losing 22 seniors.
UCSB ended the season last year without winning a game, but played well against a very good Cal Poly team and San Diego State. They are still battling to rise in the conference, a tall task considering the level of talent in California.
Captain and number eight Erick Resendiz returns to lead the Gouchos, and the help of vice captains Ricky Castaneda, and James Levi, will keep the team headed in the right direction. UCSB has a good team culture and positive training program, so the return of seven starters will reduce the negative impact of how many seniors graduated.
The Gouchos are getting started with rugby early this season, playing their first of six matches before Thanksgiving against University of Southern California Oct. 17. After taking the month of December off, UCSB will start a full slate of matches in January, including games against Sacramento State, Grand Canyon University, and Long Beach State. They will play a tough opponent in UCLA Jan. 30, before entering conference play against Santa Clara Feb. 13. The Gouchos will look to be in midseason form by the time they enter conference play, and their confidence will be high.
“Come April, I think we can beat 95 percent of the teams in the country,” said UCSB Head Coach Tim Lewis. “But we have to come through the best conference in the country to get that opportunity.”
Santa Clara started training for its rugby season at the beginning of October, preparing to improve on the 1-3 California finish last season. The Broncos were able to beat the young UCSB side, but the challenges of the conference’s top programs remained too tall a task.
The focus for Santa Barbara will be in 15s. The Broncos will participate in Cal’s Autumn 7s tournament along with Cal Poly, but look to use the fall to get as much training as possible before the spring semester. The Broncos lost their captain, Kyle Dunne, in the centers, as well as goal kicker JJ Holmgren and scrum half Mark Kuppenbender, but have no shortage of competition to help fill those holes. Freshman Owen Omahony, sophomore Tucker Smith, and junior Nick Russo will all be fighting to take the scrum half spot, while junior Ryan Chavkin looks to fill Dunne’s center position.
Senior Captain Riley White, and Junior Laakeaikawaiola Warren will be a strong point on the Broncos side, pushing them from the locks, while sophomore Eric Peters will hope to anchor the front row.
The road to the playoffs will not be an easy one for the Broncos, having to fight through a conference with three top-15 teams, but there is always a possibility. Santa Clara will play its first California game against UCSB Feb. 13 in Santa Barbara.