LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The Red River grew into a nine-team conference in the offseason. Additions of Arkansas and Houston have spurred a split in divisions – North and South. The four-team North Division includes: Arkansas, Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Meanwhile, the South Division is made up of: Houston, LSU, Texas and Texas A&M, while TCU will be independent of either division.
Regardless of the conference’s additions and new-look divisions, the frontrunners for a Red River title remain the same. LSU went undefeated in its first season playing in the conference and won the Red River Championship. Oklahoma’s lone loss came against the Tigers and could very well upend LSU this time around.
Behind those two teams are sides like Texas A&M, which has climbed the top of Texas’ college rugby ladder before, and an improving Baylor program.
University of Arkansas Razorbacks
Following back-to-back runs deep into the D1AA Playoffs, Arkansas felt it was time to take a step up in competition and the Red River Conference agreed. The past two seasons produced zero regular season losses in the Heart of American Conference for the Razorbacks, and now one of the Red River’s two new programs is ready to make its mark in D1A Rugby.
“Even though we have no illusions that this year will be a lot tougher for us, we still have high expectations for the season,” Arkansas Head Coach Warren Fyfe said. “I definitely feel that barring us losing any key players we can compete for a top place in our division and compete for the conference championship.”
If the Razorbacks’ first Red River match is any indication if they can compete for a Red River title then last year’s Champion, LSU, should keep an eye on Arkansas. The Razorbacks scored eight tries in a 51-22 win over Texas Tech.
“I was happy with the win,” Fyfe said of the Sept. 24 victory. “We were strong offensively and jumped on errors by scoring points on turnovers. However, we need to be better defensively all around to beat the top teams.”
In order to handle the top half of the Red River the way it handled the Red Raiders, Arkansas will need young, unproven forwards to fill the void left by a group of talented seniors from a season ago. 2015 captain and prop Robert Henderson has departed, and so, too, has lock Cameron Probst and loose forwards Brett Blockus and Antonia Ferese. The back line is more settled, but with fly half Jack Casey studying abroad during the fall semester, the Razorbacks have some minor shuffling to do amongst the backs, as well.
With Henderson no longer in the fold, scrum half Alex Rees takes over the captaincy and will make a terrific half back duo with Casey when he returns. They won’t have CJ Pharis to target in the back line, though, as the former winger has moved to flanker, but they still have danger man Corey Jones. A lethal attacking full back, Jones is one of the most dynamic players in the conference.
Baylor University Bears
The Bears’ three-win season last year was an improvement for the program. Not only was Baylor’s win total up, but it won its three conference matches by an average of 32 points per contest. Given the improvement during Head Coach Mason Hering’s first season with the club, there is reason to believe the Bears could grow stronger during his second campaign leading the team.
“Last year was really about creating a new set of standards and raising our commitment level as a club, while establishing a new team culture that was more professional was really important to me coming in,” Hering explained. “The guys have bought into that, so now it gives us the opportunity to start implementing more advanced rugby tactics and strategy in our trainings.”
The tactical advancements haven’t taken hold just yet, though. Last season, Baylor went on the road and bested Texas Tech, 45-7. In its lone Red River match of the 2016-17 season, the Bears were forced to climb out of a 12-0 hole to beat the Red Raiders, 29-26.
“The biggest thing for us was just the poor preparation going into the match,” Hering recalled. “Credit goes to Tech as they came out ready to play. It took around 20 minutes for us to wake up and realize we were in a fight. In the end, we were able to dig deep and come away with a win.”
Part of not entering a match prepared is leadership, and Baylor lost one of its biggest leaders from last year. All-Conference hooker and USA Rugby Academic Honor Roll honoree Tyler Hawkins is now suiting up for the senior club powerhouse Austin Blacks.
One player who isn’t likely to use the loss of Hawkins to excuse a less than stellar early season performance is Pete Hamm. Now a senior, Hamm has been one of Baylor’s best players since he stepped foot on campus four years ago. The powerful loose forward is currently working through a knee injury, but a player like Hamm playing at 80 percent still makes him one of the best players in the conference.
There are other returning Bears that will expect better performances from the team going forward. Fly half Parker Vincent and center Stewart Morris are coming off productive seasons and are expected to take their games to greater heights after spending the summer training in Auckland, New Zealand. Also, O’Neil Mbakwe should not only benefit Baylor’s set pieces, but lend a helping hand in loose play, as well. Coach Hering describes his junior prop as “an absolute freak athletically” and “arguably one of the best athletes on the entire field no matter who we face.”
University of Houston Cougars
After several solid seasons in Texas’ Southwest Conference, Houston has joined the region’s very best in the Red River Conference.
“The University of Houston Rugby Club has 40 years of alumni, and the players have bought in to stepping up to the D1A level,” said Head Coach Daniel Whetzel.
Benefitting the team going into its first season in the Red River is a new training regimen that Coach Whetzel has instituted, including volunteer fitness sessions in which the majority of the team has been participating. Also aiding the team’s increase in competition level is a realistic outlook on the challenges that await the Cougars.
“The players’ loyalty and respect for the program is overwhelming at this point, and we have a steep hill to climb going into the D1A schedule,” Whetzel added.
Not helping Houston’s transition to the Red River is the loss of nine starters from last year’s team. Still, there are a few Cougars that opposing teams will be smart to mark. Ryan Becker will captain the team from his full back position. Outside of Becker is talented wing and club president Austin Puckett.
In the forwards, Abe Blanco adds a strong punch to the front row, and George Newbold can produce quality go-forward ball from the number eight position.
Louisiana State University Tigers
Typically moving up from D1AA to D1A can come with some growing pains. That wasn’t the case for LSU last year.
The Tigers have a long tradition of winning, so the program wasn’t intimidated entering the Red River Conference and went onto an undefeated season and a place in the D1A Playoffs. Given the team’s great success in its first year in the conference, it’s not surprising LSU is gunning for another Red River title this season.
“As a team we have set a goal to use last year’s success as a spring board for this year,” explained club president and lock Zach Stratton. “We have high expectations for ourselves with a goal of again going undefeated in conference play and winning the Red River. Although we do realize that this will be a challenge with other teams in the conference elevating their level of play.”
The Tigers’ title defense doesn’t begin until Oct. 29 when they host Texas, but they did already get a run out against Arkansas State. The outcome down in Jonesboro, Ark., didn’t go as planned when LSU lost to D1A Rugby’s sixth-ranked Red Wolves, 45-5.
The result wasn’t favorable to the Red River Champions, but after an undefeated regular season that led to an ousting in the D1A Playoffs by Arizona, the team understood that it needed to beef up its schedule.
“We knew that we needed to challenge ourselves by playing top teams,” Stratton said. “This match, being the first of the year, gave us a great indicator of what we needed to work on leading up to conference play.”
The 40-point loss to one of the country’s best teams taught LSU it needed to up its fitness, field awareness and commitment to its pattern of play. Regardless, the team is already excited to welcome to Red Wolves to Baton Rouge, La., in February.
Aside from the aspects of the game that need improvement based on its performance against Arkansas State, LSU must also replace both of its starting All-Conference props from a season ago, Christian Bower and Kevin Kovacic. Another piece from last year’s Championship puzzle that will need replacing is LSU’s most consistent back from a year ago – center Jeff Mauras.
Even without the aforementioned standouts that won’t be in purple in gold this season, LSU may just return the most talented of any team in the conference. First-Team All-Conference performers back in the fold include Todd Dupree, Brennan Falcon, Stratton and Cam Troxler. Falcon, who will captain this year’s Tigers, and Troxler will be especially important to the team’s success this season. Falcon is quickly developing into one of the best forwards in the country and excelled playing for the AIG Men’s Junior All-Americans. Troxler, on the other hand, is a skilled fly half entering his junior season after competing at the USA Rugby Club 7s National Championships with New Orleans.