New coach, culture has Oklahoma on the rise

D1A Rugby: New coach, culture has Oklahoma on the rise

NORMAN, Okla. – After a Conference Championship in both sevens and 15s during the 2013-14 season and a 3-0 start out of the newly-minted Red River Conference, Oklahoma’s dominant stretch has not only grabbed the attention of folks in the southwest, but the program is beginning to gain national attention, as well.

The current outlook of the Sooners program is a surprising one considering it was just over a year ago that the team did not have the numbers to field a second side. That is about the time new head coach Jason Horowitz arrived on campus.

“The first few years of my career, our team was a little more social, but with the introduction of Coach Horowitz the organization of the team and the tone of the team is much more serious,” explained team captain Michael Al-Jiboori. “We hold ourselves and each other accountable now, and that has had a lot to do with the growth of the team.”

Horowitz saw promise out of the small club on a large, sports-crazed campus. The abrupt change in the team’s culture and attitude can be attributed to the relationships Horowitz was able to help create amongst his players – including Al-Jiboori, who had already possessed the respect and admiration of his teammates.

“Having Coach Horowitz come in was great. It was definitely a culture shock at first; he’s a hard-nosed guy and is very passionate about rugby. But he treats us like his own sons, and for me personally we bonded because we both share a desire to win.”

Still dealing with minimal numbers on the roster, Oklahoma was able to win the Allied Rugby Conference 7s Championship in the fall before receiving some reinforcements for 15s in the spring. Although the Sooners were able to fend off Texas Tech to complete the duel-code sweep of the ARC, additional talent was needed if Oklahoma wanted to continue its brief but impressive upward trend.

After a country-wide recruiting process, Horowitz and his staff convinced 31 recruits to join the winning movement at Oklahoma, including several college-ready rugby players like fly half Thomas Chinellato, wing/scrum half Manny Soto, and a large and athletic forward in Iromuanya Somtochukwu.

The influx of young but talented players has been welcomed with open arms by the entire team, but Al-Jiboori, who often felt that he had to burden the load of the entire backline from his outside center position, has really enjoyed playing alongside guys eager to make plays of their own.

“I personally like being a distributor, but in prior years I had to try and finish plays,” admitted Al-Jiboori. “Now, with the improvement of the team and some new players, some of the weight has been taken off my shoulders and I can distribute more.”

The improvement of talent, skill, and culture can be seen in the results. Oklahoma’s A-side has jumped out to a 5-0 record equating to a plus-128 point differential. While the No. 11-ranked Sooners are currently riding high, they will have to maintain their commitment to improvement if they want to win another Conference Championship and break into D1A’s top 10.

“Coach won’t let our motivation drop, nor will I,” insisted Al-Jiboori. “There is not going to be a drop off. If anything, there will be an increased level of motivation.”

This week would be an inopportune time for Oklahoma to become complacent. The Sooners hit the road to play a Texas Tech team coming off of a win over Baylor. With only one fall match under their belt up to this point, the Red Raiders are relatively unknown up to this point in the season. What is known is that Oklahoma was fortunate to pull off a 39-34 win over Tech last year that prevented the ARC crown from going to the Red Raiders last year.

It seems as though the stakes continue to grow for the Sooners, but that is exactly how Al-Jiboori and his teammates want it.