LAFAYETTE, Colo. – As they did a season ago, the Saint Mary’s College Gaels went undefeated in the California Conference. This spring, the Gaels made good on their regular season by capping the season with their third D1A National Championship. The team’s impeccable form earned Saint Mary’s more players on the All-Conference team than any other California side.
The only other California Conference team to qualify for the D1A Playoffs, Canterbury’s ninth-ranked San Diego State, was second behind the Gaels with six players named to the 1st Team.
California All-Conference 1st Team Forwards:
Gil Covey prop, San Diego State: The Aztecs were excited about the prospects of their scrum heading into the season and they got the shove in the set piece they were expecting. Although Covey might have had the brightest seasons of the San Diego State front-rowers, fellow senior and loose head prop Adahir Aguilera played a mighty role in setting the platform for the team’s dynamic backs to work off of.
Henry Hall, prop, Saint Mary’s: After a few seasons in the Gaels’ engine room, Hall filled the boots Eagle Dino Waldren left after the tight head graduated last spring. The task was not an easy one, but Hall, who Head Coach Tim O’Brien labels a “real student of the game,” made a flawless transition. He might not have gobbled up the meters with ball in hand that Payton Talea did from the loose head side, but managed to make major impacts nonetheless.
Ethan Waller, hooker, Saint Mary’s: A center in high school, Waller was a revelation in the front row last year when he managed to move to hooker in order to replace the program’s all-time best No. 2 – Mike O’Neil. A pleasant surprise last season, Waller returned to the lineup in late February following an injury and proceeded to have a dominant season.
Anthony Rodriguez, lock, Saint Mary’s: Rodriguez transferred to Saint Mary’s after spending two season playing rugby at the University of Oregon – and boy are the Gaels glad he did. Slightly undersized for the second row, Rodriguez might get lost amongst Saint Mary’s limitless playmakers if he didn’t always seem to be in the right place at the right time.
Ryan Walls, lock, San Diego State: One of a half-dozen seniors in the Aztecs’ forward pack, Walls was their key target in the lineout and always seemed to come up with the big hit when the team needed it.
Jacob Jorstad, loose forward, San Diego State: Jorstad is an absolute handful for opposing defenses and it didn’t take long for teams around the conference to gameplan for the imposing eight man. Even when teams began marking Jorstad with multiple defenders at every breakdown, he still gave the Aztecs go-forward ball with each carry.
Vili Helu, loose forward, Saint Mary’s: Helu’s size, strength and skill create mismatches all over the park. He was no stranger to the try zone, scoring a pair of tries on two occasions during the California competition and Saint Mary’s may not have won its third National Championship game if not for Helu’s breakout runs against Life.
California All-Conference 1st Team Backs:
Holden Yungert, scrum half, Saint Mary’s: An injury kept Yungert off the pitch for the second half of the 2016 season, but the senior from Petaluma, Calif., made up for lost time during the 2017 campaign. A scrum half with the mentality of a forward, Yungert consistently provided clean ball to the backs, and also demanded organization around the breakdown.
Austin Switzer, fly half, San Diego State: The Aztecs proved to have one of the most dangerous attacks in the country and it began with the play of their fly half. Switzer’s combination of vision and high rugby IQ created the gaps for his centers and outside backs to exploit.
Nick Lupian, center, San Diego State: Give Lupian a half-gap and he’ll give your team headaches all afternoon. The outside center was the most dangerous runner on a team loaded with line breakers. In the D1A Quarterfinals against Utah, Lupian kept the Utes at arm’s length but continuously make something out of nothing with ball in hand.
Aaron Matthews, center, Saint Mary’s: Matthews, who sustained a serious knee injury during the Gaels’ run to the 2016 College 7s National Championship, returned for his sophomore season even stronger. Tough enough to fend off defenders, the inside center can also shift the ball wide when needed. Against Cal, Matthews was the recipient of two late tries that helped the Gaels to a win over their Bay Area rival.
Asad Braswell, wing, Santa Clara: Few players in the conference can match Braswell’s individual playmaking ability. He was California’s Co-Player of the Month in February after posting multi-try games against UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly.
Jacob Zinda, wing, San Diego State: Zinda is a finisher – plain and simple. He managed to dot down in four of the Aztecs’ five conference matches, including a four-try performance in a win over UC Santa Barbara.
Dylan Audsley, full back, Saint Mary’s: After three All-American seasons playing in Saint Mary’s centers, Audsley shifted to full back this season. The move to the back three utilized Audsley’s superior vision, enabling him to insert the line as he saw fit, and his powerfully accurate right boot. Audsley’s desire to become the best rugby player he can be paid off when he scored 25 of the Gaels’ 30 points in the National Championship victory over Life.
California Conference 2nd Team Forwards:
Connor Cudeback, prop, Cal Poly: The former Junior All-American was exceptional during his sophomore season in San Louis Obispo. Playing alongside tight head prop Nathan Sylvia, the Mustangs were a real force up front this season.
Payton Telea, prop, Saint Mary’s: The freshman sensation arrived at Saint Mary’s with no front row experience after playing eight man in high school. His experience in the back row was apparent given Telea’s ability to carry the ball, but his unearthed aptitude in the scrum was most impressive.
Mitch Spinelli, hooker, Santa Clara: A hardworking leader up front, Spinelli also alarmed opposition with his ability to carry the ball, as well. His surprisingly spry feet earned him a start at center this season, too.
Austen Middleton, lock, Saint Mary’s: After a few seasons as a replacement off the bench, Middleton was a mainstay in the starting lineup his senior season and a prime target in the lineout.
Dustin Mollard, loose forward, Cal Poly: Possibly the Mustangs’ most dangerous player, Mollard put defenses on the back foot with strong ball carrying time and time again during the season.
Gabriel Ruzzier-Gaul, loose forward, UC Santa Barbara: An impact player on both sides of the ball, Ruzzier-Gaul was commonly making an important tackle or crucial line break. His downhill running ability makes him a great fit at inside center, but Ruzzier-Gaul proved to be a selfless teammate by lining up where he was most needed – even if that meant wearing the No. 2 jumper.
California Conference 2nd Team Backs:
Tucker Smith, scrum half, Santa Clara: As the captain of the Broncos, Smith did a phenomenal job of leading a squad that lacks some of the experience possessed by its California foes. Just a junior, Smith should be in line for a big 2017-18 season.
Cameron Gerlach, fly half, UC Santa Barbara: Gerlach plays with an amount of flair expected from an American-born Kiwi. Gerlach’s style isn’t flashy just for looks either, as the No. 10 scored the majority for the Gauchos’ tries and handled the team’s kicking duties.
Harrison Barkham, center, San Diego State: As a freshman, Barkham earned an important role in a San Diego State back line filled with upperclassmen. Not only did Barham take over as the team’s goal kicker, but he was responsible for getting 1st Team back-line selections Nick Lupian and Jacob Zinda touches in areas where they could be the most effective.
Alex Wormer, center, Cal Poly: An All-Conference selection a year ago, Wormer had another productive season in green and gold during his junior campaign. As a player who runs direct lines, distributes well and plays solid defense, Wormer is an excellent inside center.
Jack Carso, wing, Saint Mary’s: A reserve off the Gaels’ bench last season, Carso proved he was more than ready for a bigger role this season. Carso found pay dirt in three of the four California matches he played in on his way to winning Saint Mary’s award for Most Improved Player.
Chris McDonnell, wing, Saint Mary’s: Like the majority of the Saint Mary’s roster, McDonnell is a rugby player first – capable of playing a number of positions. Last year McDonnell earned All-Conference recognition after sliding into scrum half once Holden Yungert went down with an injury. This season McDonnell lined up exclusively at wing, and was at his best when he bagged a hat trick during a win against Santa Clara.
Ari Flink, full back, San Diego State: An All-Conference selection after the 2016 season, Dylan Audsley’s move to full back left Flink for 2nd Team recognition, but his season was no less impressive. Like his running mate Nick Lupian, Flink only needs a sliver of a gap to get behind a defense and cause problems. Against both Sacramento State and Santa Clara the full back scored a pair of tries.
Freshman of the Year – Payton Telea, Saint Mary’s: The best teams in the country will always have freshmen pushing upperclassmen for playing time. Last year Aaron Matthews made a huge impact for the Gaels as a freshman and this year it was Telea. The powerful first-year player has the look of a prop, but didn’t play the position until he got to Saint Mary’s. Thanks in part to Forwards Coach Johnny Everett, Telea was not only a menace in the loose, but in the set scrum, as well.
Forward of the Year – Kevin O’Connor, Saint Mary’s: The calm and professional mentality the Gaels take the pitch with is a direct reflection of their captain. O’Connor led the team with the poise expected of a fifth-year senior, and his unquestioned leadership was on display during the D1A National Championship game when the blindside flanker trusted his team to get back into the game off the kicking tee, rather than pushing to score tries when awarded penalties. It’s not just what O’Connor does as a captain, either. The All-American always puts himself on position to carry the ball forward as an attacking option.
Back of the Year – Michael McCarthy, Saint Mary’s: One look at McCarthy on the field and it’s pretty obvious the fly half had a rugby ball in his hands long before arriving on the Moraga, Calif., campus. Coming up through San Francisco Golden Gate’s youth ranks, McCarthy plays with both a subtle smoothness and blunt physicality seen in Golden Gate’s senior side.
Player of the Year – Alec Barton – Saint Mary’s: Once lost in an All-American shuffle with teammates Vili Helu and Kevin O’Connor, Barton was massive for the Gaels during a 2015-16 season that earned him one spot on the AIG Men’s Collegiate All-Americans tour to Australia last summer. This year, the openside flanker was at it again. Barton relentlessly used his strength to fend off would-be tacklers, and his unmatched fitness to get to every breakdown required of him. Lastly, Barton’s ability to move to the second row also allowed Saint Mary’s to bring on its super sub at flanker, Marcus Viscardi, early in the second half, which only made the Gaels’ lineup that much more dynamic.