Conference Preview: Saint Mary’s leads larger, more competitive California field

D1A Rugby: Conference Preview: Saint Mary’s leads larger, more competitive California field
Photo Credit: RonRaffPhotography (left) & Connie Hatfield (right)

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – It’s hard not to immediately think of Saint Mary’s College when hearing of D1A Rugby’s California Conference. The Gaels, after all, have reached four consecutive National Championship Finals – winning titles in 2014 and 2015. Saint Mary’s dominance often overshadows perennial playoff teams Cal Poly and San Diego State. Those two teams return plenty of talent this year and both would have no qualms putting their front rows up against the country’s best.

Elsewhere around the conference, UC Santa Barbara also believes it has an advantage along its front line, while Santa Clara likes it odds beating teams by utilizing its talented back line. The offseason return of Sacramento State now makes California a six-team conference. A former member of the competition, the Hornets are welcomed back to D1A Rugby after reaching the National Quarterfinals of the D1AA Playoffs in 2016.


Cal Poly Mustangs
Cal Poly’s consistency in recent years has placed the team in the postseason since D1A Rugby’s inception. Still, there’s a feeling in San Louis Obispo, Calif., that the Mustangs won’t be satisfied with another exit in the opening round of the 2017 D1A Playoffs.

“The players and staff have been frustrated by our inability to break into the top tier of D1A teams,” admitted Head Coach James Tesoriero. “We’ve been good enough to make the Playoffs the last few season, but not good enough to advance past the first round. We feel we have better continuity this season with key returning players and staff, which should help with leadership and tactical understanding of our game plan.”

Continuity is improving between the roster and coaching staff, but that doesn’t mean Cal Poly has some holes to plug – especially in the experience department. Captain and eight man John Joe Murphy, as well as back-line leader Keli’i Dominguez, have graduated. Add the graduations of lock Sean Gorman and prop Mickey O’Crowley and there is some serious production from previous Cal Poly teams that won’t be present in 2017.

There is still All-American talent among the Mustangs and it starts in the front row. Prop Conor Cudeback and hooker Nathan Sylvia were Honorable Mention All-Americans last year and have recently been invited to the upcoming AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American Identification Camp. They, along with Eddie McFarland, were a big reason Cal Poly was successful in the scrum last year, and should provide a big push up front again in 2017.

“The scrum is our team’s strongest feature and has been for the last few seasons,” recalled Tesoriero. “We return an outstanding front row for their third year together. Each have grown as individual players and they have developed a very effective combination in the set piece and around the park.”

The other noticeable strength of the team is in the centers. Alex Wormer is another Honorable Mention All-American heading to the Collegiate All-American camp. He’ll be paired with another talented center in Mark Grzanich.

Some freshman forwards with size have entered the Cal Poly Rugby family in the fall, but they are raw and will need time to develop. Meanwhile, talented freshman back-line players Marshall Brusca, Bobby Kaehms and Jack Reynolds could earn themselves A-side playing time early in their college careers.

Regardless of who plays alongside Grzanich and Wormer in the back line, expect the Mustangs to try and move the ball from sideline to sideline.

“We aim to play an expansive attacking game off the back of our set piece strength,” described Tesoriero. “Our catch and pass skills will determine the success of this intent to play expansively. We also expect to be an 80-minute team, with an increased emphasis on conditioning.”


Sacramento State Hornets
Previously a member of the California Conference, Sacramento State’s growth and positive results playing in Pacific West Conference and the D1AA Playoffs have the Hornets back in D1A Rugby.

“The Sacramento State Men’s Rugby program is very excited about moving back up to D1A,” Head Coach Adam Macrae told USA Rugby in June. “We want to test ourselves against the best competition in the United States.”

Aiding in the transition back to the California Conference are a few standout players – particularly inside center Aaron Vaughn and eight man Spencer Wraa. Their leadership and playmaking abilities will be especially vital to the Hornets’ success following the graduation of blindside flanker Michael Rascon and lock Taylor Wilson, who Macrae described as the “types of players that don’t come around too often.”

Sacramento State should benefit from a handful of freshmen who appear ready to contribute right away. Backs Culter Pous and Matai Waqavesi should provide a spark, while Tyrell Lassair is picking things up quite quickly in the front row.

The 2017 schedule is no doubt a big step up in competition from the Pacific West, but Sacramento State used its fall diligently to prepare the best it could. The team concluded October with a victory over University Nevada, Reno, and squared off against two-time defending D1AA National Champion UC Davis twice. The Hornets couldn’t manage wins over the Aggies, but the 160 minutes against a UC Davis team that matches up well against California Conference teams in terms of athleticism and skill should benefit Sacramento State ahead of its Feb. 4 fixture at home against Cal Poly to kick off its return to the conference.


Saint Mary’s College Gaels
The currently-third-ranked Gaels beat their California rivals by an average of over 50 points per contest last year on their way to yet another Conference Championship. The undefeated conference record eventually led to Saint Mary’s fourth consecutive appearance in the D1A Rugby National Championship, and a Cup Final win at the USA Rugby College 7s National Championships.

Sometimes the best teams in the country, however, have the most talent to replace, and Saint Mary’s definitely will be without a few key figures from a season ago. Three-time All-American prop Dino Waldren, as well as scrum half Bradley Roberts and lock Mike Tillson have graduated. Still, there is no reason to shed a tear for the Gaels, as All-American loose forwards Alec Barton, Vili Helu and Kevin O’Connor, as well as back-line standouts Dylan Audsley, Aaron Matthews and Mike McCarthy, return for another campaign in Moraga, Calif.

Replacements for the aforementioned graduated seniors might already be in place, too. All-American scrum half Holden Yungert returns from a broken arm that cost him the second half of last year’s spring semester to reclaim the No. 9 jersey. In the forwards, promising lock Anthony Rodriguez has the potential to fill the boots left behind by Tillson, and Payton Talea has the inside shot of winning a starting position in the front row left open by Waldren’s departure. A loose forward in high school, Talea has a prototypical body for the front row and one of the best in the business to get him up to speed in the scrum in Saint Mary’s Forwards Coach Johnny Everett. Talea’s skills were on display during last week’s 96-0 thumping of Arizona State, in which the freshman bagged a hat trick.

“We seem to be every bit as talented as years past, but each year varies a bit with the depth and breadth of our roster,” said Head Coach Tim O’Brien. “This year we are deeper in the backs than usual. With that said, a few games and the injury bug will start reshuffling the deck in a hurry.”

With so much talent in the backs, Saint Mary’s will again impose an expansive game plan on attack that should see the ball moving away from the breakdown in a blink of an eye.

“We’re an up-tempo-, high skill set-oriented squad with a thirst to maximize their rugby I.Q.,” O’Brien described. “The style of play is driven by understanding who we are not and creating an identity based on our collective strengths.”

As they do each and every season, the Gaels have built one of the most difficult schedules in terms of nonconference fixtures. In a three-month span, Saint Mary’s will play five games outside of the California Conference against teams ranked in the top-15 of Canterbury’s D1A Rugby Top 20, including bouts against BYU and Cal.

 

San Diego State University Aztecs
The Aztecs managed to beat Cal Poly and Santa Clara by a combined three points to finish second in California last year and earn a place in the D1A Rugby Playoffs. Although San Diego State dropped its opening round playoff game to Davenport, the program feels it has the pieces in place to make a deeper run in 2017.

The positive mojo surrounding the San Diego State camp is in large part due to the fact that it practically returns its entire squad from a year ago. Dynamic fly half Austin Switzer is back in the saddle after missing nearly the entire 2016 season due to an injury. Switzer’s health, paired with line-breaking center Nick Lupian’s return, give the Aztecs two very dangerous attacking options in the back line.

The talent doesn’t stop in the backs, though. San Diego State has two powerful props in Adahir Aguilera and Jake Jorstad. Both were All-Conference performers a season ago, with Jorstad moving from the engine room to the front row. Their shove in the scrum and work in the loose give the Aztecs the chance to challenge Cal Poly and Saint Mary’s for having the best front row in the conference.

Although there is plenty of familiarity between the roster and coaching staff, Head Coach Alex Lichtig is still waiting to see how this year’s team reacts to the sturdy competition of the California Conference, but San Diego State has the skill in the back line to play fast-paced rugby and forwards with a reputation of not shying away from the contact area.

“Our true style is still emerging as it’s still early in the season for us,” Lichtig said. “We look to play an attractive style of rugby on attack and a physical defense.”

The program Lichtig took over in 2013 was littered with underclassmen. Now the former Aztec All-American is coaching a much more mature group, and one that’s been battle tested. One more year of improvement from a core nucleus of seniors could cause trouble for conference rivals, but also for a slate of nonconference opposition that includes Canterbury D1A Top 20 sides Arizona, Army and BYU.

“Many of our current seniors have been playing D1A footy since their freshman year,” noted Lichtig. “I think that has benefited us in two main ways: they have quite a bit of experience playing an array of top college teams and they have seized the opportunity to create their own team culture. It will be exciting to see our senior group model the way for our team and program overall this season.”

Santa Clara University Broncos
Santa Clara hopes a plethora of talent in the back line can ignite a 2017 season that sees the Broncos end a two-year D1A Playoff drought.

“We have a very experienced team with a lot of returner starters,” said Head Coach Paul Keeler. “While we are not a big team, we are athletic and quick, and can play a very fast offloading style.”

The team’s ability to keep the ball moving will miss the running and distributing of fly half Andrew Clem, but a trio of seniors that will patrol the back line give Santa Clara more than enough options to get behind the defense. Jack O’Hara, who is also capable of lining up at No. 8, has a devastating combination of speed and strength on the wing. Opposite of him is fellow winger and proven finisher Asad Braswell, while Ryan Chavkin returns to the No. 13 jumper and should be joined by talented freshman center Adam Leonard. Opposition will also need to keep an eye on junior scrum half Tucker Smith, who quietly had a solid season a year ago.

An already thin group of forwards will have to do without lock Riley White and prop Josh Galant – who now suits up for Olympic Club. Mitch Spinelli, however, returns from a solid sophomore season and adds value in his ability to play both hooker and prop. The team also hopes freshman Nick Chan can provide a spark from the openside flanker position.

No team in the conference seemed prepared to unseat Saint Mary’s as the alpha dog in the conference last year, making Santa Clara’s matches against fellow Playoff hopefuls Cal Poly and San Diego State that much more crucial. The three teams have enjoyed several tight encounters in recent years, but Santa Clara’s lack of depth and size proved to be an issue in losses to both sides in 2016.

“Our division is a tough division and there are not easy matches,” Keeler assessed. “For us, it’s about staying healthy by playing the right amount of rugby building into the season and trying to develop well-rounded players. The games against Cal Poly and San Diego State are always contested and spirited, and where we tend to struggle is up front. But with more experience up front and an overall athletic team, we are looking forward to utilizing some of our success in our sevens seasons to carry over.”

Keeler and the entire Broncos program will have a much clearer picture of the team they have heading into the conference season after they battle No. 17 Arizona on the road Saturday, Jan. 14.

 

University of California Santa Barbara Gauchos
The Gauchos haven’t done much winning in recent years, but they hope to change that in 2017. The team, which kicks off California Conference play Jan. 14 against No. 3 Saint Mary’s, fields a roster this year that is strong in a few areas and hopes to utilize its strengths to earn more than a couple of wins.

“After we use Saint Mary’s as a bench mark, we will be shooting for a clean run to the Playoffs for the first time in four years,” said Head Coach Tim Lewis.

The first hurdle in reversing its losing ways in 2017 will be replacing the production and leadership of captain and All-Conference eight man Erik Resendiz. He, along with the loss of last year’s starting wings Dominic Carusillo and Philip Proctor, are the most prominent voids that need filling.

One area that is more than solidified is the front row, where Garrett Bumann, Ki Wan Sung and Adam Vasquez have had their share of reps playing alongside one another. Given the strength of the scrum around the entire conference, their continued improvement will be a key to Santa Barbara’s success.

Pat Foran is another experienced campaigner after starting every game for the Gauchos in 2016. He’ll likely combine with Steven Risch in the second row, and Jesse Sandoval has the look of an excellent flanker.

Youth in the half back positions isn’t typically favored, but that is what Santa Barbara will be relying on this year. Fortunately, Cameron Gerlach and David Jenkins are as talented as they are young. Even better is that their arrival on campus allows Osvaldo Ordonez to move to the centers, where he can be used as a resource to break the line, and Gabe Ruzzier-Gaul figures to be the other center. Although Gerlach and Jenkins are the headlining newcomers, the team believes a strong on-campus recruitment effort during the fall could provide additional depth in the second half of the season.

Five fall fixtures in 15s laid the groundwork for the amount of success Santa Barbara will have in conference play this spring. But so, too, did its Winter Camp that utilized the tutelage of coaches from New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty to sharpen the players’ techniques and skills ahead of the season.

“We are our own biggest challenge,” Lewis said. “If our players buy in and commit to each other and the season then we will have a good year.”