Conference Preview: PAC ready to provide entertaining season

D1A Rugby: Conference Preview: PAC ready to provide entertaining season
Photo Credit: Alex Ho (left & right), Ron Raff (center)

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The latest conference to enter the D1A ranks is also one of the very best competitions in the country – the PAC Rugby Conference. Like D1A Rugby’s Big Ten Universities, PAC Rugby aligns its conference solely with members of the same NCAA conference. The fan-friendly familiarity between PAC schools has already reaped benefits for the conference. Thanks to the quality of the competition and name recognition of the conference, the past two PAC 7s National Championships have aired on the Pac-12 Network, as well as several PAC Rugby 15s fixtures.”

After struggling to compete with the top dogs of the PAC in recent years, Oregon State has dropped out of the conference. Still, the PAC is bigger and better in 2017 than it was a year ago. University of Southern California enters the fray, while Stanford will play three PAC sides this spring as an affiliate member with hopes of joining the conference in the near future.

“We are excited that both Stanford University and USC will be joining the PAC and look forward to assisting with their long-term development through some creative scheduling and the sharing of best practices for the overall improve of PAC Rugby,” said PAC Rugby Commissioner and UCLA Head Coach Scott Stewart. “We are proud of the work that has been done to expand the PAC Rugby Conference and to expose our competition to a wider audience both on a national and international stage.”

Cal, undoubtedly, is the favorite to win another PAC Conference Championship. After all, the Bears’ excellence hasn’t allowed any other program to claim the conference. Still, UCLA continues to challenge Cal, and Arizona, Arizona State and Utah return a ton of talent.


University of Arizona Wildcats
The PAC Rugby Conference’s introduction to D1A Rugby give the Wildcats a D1A Conference to be a part of after two seasons as an Independent. Arizona, though, is no stranger to the competition in the PAC having previously been a member, but are hoping for improved results in 2017.

Only two starters from last year’s unit graduated – forwards captain Cesar Davila and hooker Cam Hudson. The loss of skilled seniors never helps, but AIG Men’s Junior All-American hooker Steven Branham appears ready for a starting role, and up-and-coming loose forwards Tyler Hansen and Ryan Fitzpatrick will supply a needed boost following Davila’s departure.

Elsewhere in the forwards, Branham’s Junior All-American running mate from a year ago, Sean Coleman, is expected to make a big impact from the engine room.

In the backs, it all starts with the leadership and distribution of fly half Kyle Rogers. Now a four-year starting senior, Rogers will wear the ‘C’ for the Wildcats but he’ll have plenty of help alongside him. Centers Shane Dempsey and Ben Joseph have shared a lot of reps in the midfield with one another, and Arizona is even more dangerous on the edges. Wingers Ryan Hudson and Dante Weeks can score from anywhere but do it in different styles. Weeks is your typical burner, with top high-end speed. Hudson, on the other hand, uses his powerful 6-foot-4 frame to create mismatches on the wing.

Arizona’s past few years of recruiting efforts have produced a lot of talented players, and this year’s group of freshmen are equally capable and a few could impact the team sooner than later. Fly half Anton Grigoriou comes to Tucson, Ariz., by way of Cardiff, Wales, while lock Bronson Teles arrived from Texas. Both should add depth and provide competition for starting spots during their first year on campus.

With so much talent littered throughout the roster, it’s no surprise the Wildcats aim to play a style of rugby that keeps the ball moving.

“For us it’s about playing an open style that’s up-tempo and makes it hard for teams to get into their groove,” said Head Coach Sean Duffy. “High energy in attack and defense, and aim to force teams to adjust to us – not the other way around.”

There were plenty of mistakes to correct from last week’s 2017 debut against Santa Clara, but there were several of positives to take away from the 26-point victory.

The win against the Broncos was a good starting off point, and things will get much harder for the Wildcats in a hurry with a Jan. 21 trip to Berkeley, Calif., to face Cal quickly approaching. However, the feeling amongst the Arizona squad is that it would like to be more competitive against teams like Cal and do better than its run to the 2016 D1A Rugby Quarterfinals.

“It’s time to reap the benefits of the youth movement we put in place,” Duffy said. “We saw flashes of that with our run to the Quarterfinals last year, and our success in sevens at the CRC and West Coast Sevens. For those guys it’s about working to grow together, not just grow as individuals. When it meshes together there’s natural success that will come, and that’s the challenge this year.”

 

Arizona State University Sun Devils
Like its in-state rival Arizona, Arizona State returns just about its entire squad from a year ago, as well. Ryan Spiwak is no longer with the team, but a trio of reliable playmakers return to the fold in the form of 2016 Sevens All-Americans Davaughan Foster, Alex Sandstrom and Bailey Stringer. Those three, as they have in years past, will be instrumental in the Sun Devils’ success this spring.

Still, other players must step up in a hurry. Arizona State opened its 2017 by holding Winter Camp in Moraga alongside No. 3-ranked Saint Mary’s College. The training camp ended in a fixture between the two schools, with the Gaels shutting out the Sun Devils, 96-0.

“The few days with Saint Mary’s was a really valuable time,” Head Coach Gary Lane said. “There were several lessons learned. Overall it was an absolutely grueling eight days, including some heavy travel days.”

The one-sided showing means improvements will need to be made in a hurry for Arizona State to beat UCLA in its Jan. 21 conference opener.

“We are just looking to play good phase rugby against UCLA,” Lane added. “We always enjoy the battle with them.”

The continued growth of the PAC Rugby Conference will make Arizona State’s path to the top of the competition that much more difficult. Meanwhile the team has used its skill and athleticism in certain areas to become one of the most formidable college sevens squads in the country. This past May, the Sun Devils reached the Cup Semifinals of the 2016 USA Rugby College 7s National Championships, as well as the Cup Finals of the Red Bull Uni 7s back in August.

“We haven’t quite got to the top three or four mainly due to size and depth, but we are working on both,” Lane said of the team’s expectations of being one of the nation’s best programs. “We are building a very strong endowment that will afford us many opportunities when we start to spend some of the money.”

In the meantime, a gifted group of freshmen will help build depth during the here and now. Liam Brady, Ben Cohen, Sean Devins, Lewis Grassie, Oscar Ockomichalak and Benny Ruffalo are “freshmen that are working hard and are all very committed,” according to Lane.


California Golden Bears
The 2016 season ended with championship victories in both the Varsity Cup and CRC for Cal, but one can imagine that for a team that carries the highest of expectations that those trophy-hoisting wins are long gone from its rearview mirror.

The Bears, as they do every season, opened the New Year at the Dennis Storer Classic and went undefeated – including a 26-0 win over host UCLA in an abbreviated match. The four-win weekend, in which Cal only conceded seven total points, answered a few questions regarding replacements for a decorated senior class that graduated in May.

Cal is used to reloading, but it’s tough not to notice the amount of talent that left Berkeley in the offseason. All-Americans Harry Adolphus and Nicklas Boyer depart after excellent careers, the latter excelling in the No. 9 jersey with the Collegiate All-Americans during their 2016 summer tour in Australia. In the forwards, the entire front row must be replaced. Hooker Michael Bush and props George Vrame and Scott Walsh each earned All-American recognition in their last year at Cal, but are no longer wearing blue and gold. Replacing that much talent and experience along the front line could only be managed by a few teams, and Cal will use the likes of Henry Baylor, Brian Joyce, Wade Ogburn, Kevin Sullivan and Damon Wiley to do just that.

There is also the loss of All-American lock James Kondrat. Senior Connor Sweet remains in the engine room, though, and the senior from Xavier High School is primed for a big season.

Two proven stars in the backfield will continue their brilliant form. All-American Russell Webb is a cool customer at fly half and can take over a game when needed. His biggest target is fellow All-American Anthony Salaber. The 6-foot-5 fifth year senior has the look of a lock, but his line breaking capabilities have made him a fixture in Cal’s midfield. He’ll be joined in the centers with Patrick Barrientes, while wing Sam Cusano should be a game breaking addition. The highly touted freshman showed off his speed and ability to finish playing sevens in the fall, and has Cal fans eager to see what he can do in 15s.

Outside of their PAC Rugby schedule the Golden Bears have a trio of traditional contests that will be must-watch college rugby. Saturday, Feb. 18 Cal hosts British Columbia for the first of the home-and-away “World Cup” Series, before traveling to Vancouver for a second tussle with the Thunderbirds. Three weeks later another chapter will be written in the Cal’s Bay Area rivalry between the Golden Bears and Saint Mary’s College when the Gaels make the short trip to Strawberry Canyon March 25.

 

UCLA Bruins
UCLA has been a perennial contender for the PAC Rugby title since the conference formed. The Bruins did lose a few of college rugby’s top players in the offseason due to graduation, but there is still plenty of talent in Westwood that should make UCLA the team most likely to knock off Cal atop the conference standings.

Zack Bonte, Pierre Courpron and Seb Sharpe all caused headaches for opposing PAC teams in 2016 on their way to All-American honors. All three have moved on from the program, but UCLA Head Coach Scott Stewart and his staff will continue to utilize the talents of the Barry brothers. Older brother Niall earned All-American honors a year ago, but little brother Cian is just as elusive.

Additional returning starters that should keep the Bruins in the conference’s title hunt are prop Andrew Alex and lock Yanick Mendes, as well as capable freshmen Patrick French, Noah Hoffmann and Hogan Irwin.

Just as a lot of teams like to do out west, UCLA envisions itself playing a fast-paced style that sees the ball swing from touch line to touch line. Still, the team understands it can’t implement this pattern of play without getting its defensive structures down first.

“We are always thinking of attacking from anywhere and like to play an open game, but we build that style from the defensive side of the ball,” Stewart said.

Several PAC teams are heading into the season confident, but UCLA might have the best odds of unseating Cal as conference champions. The Bruins are as familiar with the Golden Bears as any team in the PAC and nearly knocked off Cal in 2015 – the last time UCLA hosted Cal for a conference match. Last year the Bears didn’t have much trouble upending UCLA, 37-3, but that was in Berkeley. In March Cal travels to Los Angeles where the Bruins barely fell to its rival, 18-12, in 2015.

“Our goal is to play our best in every match and hopefully that will lead to a shot to compete for the PAC Championship,” explained Stewart. “In order to get that far, we will have to stay fit and minimize injuries. California is a formidable opponent and recently our matchups have been very competitive, but there is an awful lot of rugby to play in advance of that date so we must prepare for the matches immediately in front of us.”

 

USC Trojans
A changing culture and improving results in D1AA made the timing feel right for USC to join D1A Rugby and the PAC Conference.

“When Coach [Loa] Milford and I joined the program last year we expected to perform relatively well in D1AA,” explained Director of Rugby Dominic Riebli. “We knew that if we gave the players the proper tools and taught them a basic patter of play, the university had enough talented athletes to help us win more than we lost. That approach got us to the regional playoffs and a matchup against UC Davis. Though we lost that match, we came away believing that we competed well against the eventual National Champions, and we needed to play more games like that in order to advance the program.”

There is not only belief among the program, but talent too. Fly half Adam Bushell and center Dimitry Veremeenko won’t be caught in headlights by the competition in the PAC, and forwards Kian Azizirad and Michael Cesar give the Trojans leadership in the pack, too.

Given the massive step up in competition this season, it’s unfortunate that USC had to say goodbye to now-transferred lock Colten Elkin and eight man Corbin Bennett, who will miss the season due to an ACL injury. There’s already a replacement lined up for Bennett and a good one too. All-American Luc Desroches won four National Championships while at Minnesota-Duluth, but will finish his college career in Southern California. Be sure not to diminish the loose forward’s accolades either; Desroches’ arrival to the west coast immediately makes him one of the best forwards in PAC Rugby.

Additional reinforcements are joining the program in the form of former football walk-on Sean Cooper and Pepperdine University transfer Kurt McNally.

Not only is USC’s roster improving in terms of skill and experience, but the competitive nature of the program is being amped up a few notches. If the group can react well to the changes, positive results could arrive sooner than later.

“We simply want to represent the university with honor and hopefully present our alumni and collegiate rugby observers with a proof of a concept,” Riebli stated. “We have internal and external benchmarks to establish. Internally, we’ve asked our players to transform the way they approach the sport within the context of their student life.

“Externally, we will establish a competitive benchmark against the second tier of our PAC opponents. Will we show well enough to merit increased competition in in this season or the next? Each session and game moves us closer to the answer.”

 

University of Utah Utes
Red flags were raised in the fall when the Utes dropped games to Air Force and Colorado State by a wide margin after beating both teams the year before. A closer look at the lineups in those games, and there is reasonable justifications for the results.

“80% of the players we put on the field were either freshmen or in their first year of rugby,” said Head Coach Jon Law. “So while we’d like to win all of our games, we aren’t necessarily playing for wins and losses in the fall. We are playing for experience. We don’t view it as a mistake. We view it as program-building.”

The Utes are fully committed to the PAC after dipping feet in both the PAC and West Conferences last year, and now have plans to put its best boot forward this season. The elimination of one competition to focus on the PAC isn’t the only reason Utah feels it can climb the conference’s standings table in 2017. All-American forwards Chad Gough and Gabe Rufflin are back in red and white. Gough might be the best hooker in the country and Rufflin’s combination of length and athleticism make him very valuable in the loose. Two more returning starters in the forward pack to keep an eye on are flanker Will Franz and lock Caleb Meyer.

The half back pairing of Nate Kingsford and Josh Webber remain intact. Continued continuity between those two will be very important because the Utes center pairing need replacing. Scott Strong and 2015 West Conference Back of the Year Taylor Thomas have graduated. So too has All-American prop Benjamin Mills and second rower Jacob Morrison.

The wealth of talent in Utah’s high school programs seems to continue to infiltrate the Utes roster on a yearly basis, and this offseason was no different. Forwards Dylan Coggins and Levi Hunt are new to campus and have the potential to benefit the team this spring. So too do backs Christian Garcia, Kelsin Pupunu and Daniel Salazar.

Utah’s coaching staff, which includes Director of Rugby Haloti Liava’a, is excited about the skill level of its roster but even more pleased with the level of experience and commitment among the players. That unwavering dedication is already leading towards a very fit squad heading into the PAC Rugby season.