BOULDER, Colo. – No conference sent more teams to the 2014 D1A Playoffs than the California Conference. Cal Poly, San Diego State, Saint Mary’s, and Santa Clara all reached the postseason, while two of the three teams from the conference that didn’t play into late April – Sacramento State and UC Davis – dropped down to D1AA.
Saint Mary’s is head and shoulders above the rest of the conference and just about every other team in college rugby. But after the Gaels, the competition in the Golden State looks completely wide open.
First-year Cal Poly head coach James Tesoriero could have found himself in a worse position when coming stateside to coach college rugby. The experienced Australian takes over a program with a winning tradition, nestled in the visually-pleasing beach town of San Luis Obispo.
“I’ve inherited a program that has a pretty good culture,” Tesoriero proudly said.
Other than the positive culture, Tesoriero was pleased to discover Cal Poly’s roster is fit, has a good understanding of rugby, and are a tight-knit group. After massive losses to Cal and BYU in January, the head coach and his staff got a much better idea of the team’s areas of weakness – most notably on defense.
Similar to last season, Cal Poly’s most talented players reside in the backline. Max Tacket, who missed most of last year with an injury, is a hard-charging outside center flanked by a talented back three including Matt Long and Mikey Mitchell. Long is a sophomore wing who makes up for any lack in size with terrific speed and footwork, while Mitchell is playing full back and was the Mustangs’ best player during the fall sevens season.
This talented trio should assist in offsetting the losses of Cal Poly’s centers from 2013-14. Honorable Mention All-American and inside center Andrew Early graduated last spring, and outside center Will Campuzano is not currently enrolled at Cal Poly, but the team hopes to have the promising backliner back later in the spring or next fall.
Even though the Mustangs will seek to get it wide whenever manageable, this isn’t to say they don’t have quality players wearing one through eight. John Joe Murphy is an experienced loose forward who will captain Cal Poly this spring at No. 8. Outside of Murphy, Tesoriero has been very impressed by a pair of freshman in the forward pack. High School All-American Connor Cudeback has immediately inserted himself into the first XV, as has fellow first-year player Sean Gorman in the second row.
The Mustangs have not only reached the Playoffs consistently in recent years, but have also managed to advance to the later rounds. It will be interesting to see if Cal Poly has what it takes to reach the National Semifinals as it did in 2013.
San Diego State
The Aztecs will be young this year, but it’s virtually impossible for the team to be as inexperienced as they were a season ago. Time and time again, San Diego State ran out a first-grade side made up mostly of freshmen.
Second-year coach and former San Diego State All-American Alex Lightig is excited to bring back a group similar to the one he led last season except much more “physically matured,” as the coach put it.
Fortunately for Lichtig, he has a captain and field general in Kalei Konrad to help guide the young Aztecs.
“Kalei is a special character in that he’s developed over the years, but he recognizes where his teammates are at,” explained Lichtig. “He’s always looking to assist in his teammates’ development, and does everything he can to make them better.”
As happy as the coaching staff is to have Konrad, the All-American is equally pleased to have a skilled running mate in Frank Ramos. The senior center showed flashes of being a top-end rugby player in the past, but seems to have put it all together during the 2014-15 season.
“Frank Ramos has emerged not only as a great player, but a great leader,” Lichtig proclaimed.
Half back Austin Switzer will be responsible for ensuring the two star backs get consistent ball. Switzer will see his most time at scrummy, but can move to fly half if Lichtig tactically moves Konrad to center for any portion of the California Conference season.
In the forwards, Adahir Aguilera is an impact player in the front row. The prop is currently battling a few nagging injuries, but will be a physical force when he returns to health. In just his second year playing rugby, flanker Esmat Wardak has been developing at a blistering pace and will be flying around the pitch from touchline to touchline this spring.
A Playoff team in 2014 that currently ranks No. 16 in the D1A, San Diego State will have to have a very strong spring to return to the postseason.
The 2013-14 season was a special one for Saint Mary’s. The Gaels reached the Cup Final of the 2013 USA Rugby College 7s National Championship, and capped the season with a National Championship victory in the D1A Final against Life University.
With so much going right for Saint Mary’s in 2014, combined with the graduation of three All-Americans in flanker Kyle Petersen and half backs Joey Reavey and Garrett Brewer, there is no way the Gaels can achieve repeated success in 2015, right? Think again.
As much as the Gaels lost to graduation, they return even more. Team captain and D1A Final MVP Cooper Maloney will again patrol the back end from his full back position, while fellow All-American Kingsley McGowan continues to be one of the most dangerous attackers in college rugby.
Fierce runner and legitimate kicking threat Dylan Audsley is also coming off of an All-American season and will be wearing No. 12. Audsley will likely lead the Gaels in points because he kicks for goal, but could be challenged by Nick Schlobohm. The winger had a breakout season last year, and is expected to once again be a try-scoring machine once he recovers from a couple of lingering injuries.
Still, none of the players listed above will be replacing Brewer or Reavey. Instead, Mike McCarthy and Holden Yungert will be called on to do so.
“They are not as threatening as Reavey and Brewer, but they are talented and have a lot of upside,” Head Coach Tim O’Brien said of his new nine-ten connection.
With so much firepower in the backline, as well as the numerous matches in which the Gaels scored 90-plus points, many people made the mistake of assuming Saint Mary’s was a team that relied on flash and wide ball – which was far from true. Even with an almost unfair amount of talent in the backline, folks would be unwise to make a similar assumption this season.
The Gaels return three All-Americans in the front row: props Ryan Pratt and Dino Waldren and hooker Mike O’Neil – who O’Brien feels is the best at his position in the entire country, and likely to leave Saint Mary’s as the program’s all-time best hooker.
Like Petersen, Luke Sauser is another beast of a loose forward to graduate away from Moraga, Calif. However, flanker Kevin O’Conner is back and is joined in the back row by freshman standout Vili Helu – who was recently named D1A Player of the Week.
It doesn’t appear that any team in the conference will be capable of challenging Saint Mary’s, but with a nonconference slate of games including Cal, BYU, and Army, the Gaels will be well prepared come time to defend their D1A National Championship.
The Broncos may have been the most positively surprising team during the 2013-14 season. Coming from oblivion, Santa Clara placed second in California and won its opening round match of the 2014 D1A Playoffs.
Given the overall strength of the conference, repeating last year’s success will be a challenge. After a victory over Stanford to open 2015, the Broncos were unable to win home games against Arizona and Colorado, dropping Santa Clara from the Top 20.
There are a couple of reasons why the Broncos might actually take a step back this season. One being that Head Coach Paul Keeler is still working towards building a roster deep with student-athletes who fit his system and the school’s academic standards – something not quite that easy to do when competing with fellow Bay Area schools like Cal and Saint Mary’s. Secondly, Santa Clara is without its most influential player from a season ago after graduating Honorable Mention All-American Tim O’Hara.
Lacking experience top to bottom, Keeler and his staff will be relying heavily on a pair of exciting backs. Kyle Dunne is a determined runner best suited at center. On the wing, John Holmgren is a danger man with an incredibly accurate boot.
February 14 saw Santa Clara drop a nonconference affair with No. 1-ranked Saint Mary’s 91-10, but expect the Broncos to show much better when the two meet again April 11.
UC Santa Barbara
After a difficult 2014 season, Head Coach Tim Lewis has an optimistic view of this year’s version of his team.
“We’ll find out over the next three weeks, but I think we’re looking pretty good,” Lewis said. “We have two full sides out to every practice, so there is plenty of competition.”
Not only have the numbers been good at training, but the quality within those numbers is improved from last year. Santa Barbara has far more seniors on this year’s team than a year ago, and the freshman class is the best Lewis has seen arrive on campus.
The Gauchos are still forced to replace last year’s two captains in Ryan Cook and Johnny Prickett. Cook graduated, while Prickett is currently studying abroad after playing sevens in the fall with UCSB.
Helping to compensate for the loss of the two standouts will be explosive winger Alex Asturias, fly half Dave Persson, scrum half Ryan Keely-Cain, and captain and inside center Jimmy Peniston
One area of the pitch that doesn’t lack leadership is the Gauchos’ front row. Hooker Myles Han and prop Dante Russomanno are both seniors and should provide a legitimate push in the set scrums. Lewis is also pleased with prized freshman Patrick Foran. The rangy lock has made an immediate impact for Santa Barbara and is especially effective in the lineout.
With 2015 matches against UCLA, Cal, and Saint Mary’s already under their belts, the Gauchos can rest assured knowing the most difficult of challenges this season are already behind them.
1) Saint Mary’s
2) Cal Poly
3) San Diego State
4) Santa Clara
5) UC Santa Barbara