BOULDER, Colo. – A bigger and stronger Red River Rugby Conference re-engages Saturday Jan. 30. The conference got a head start on its season when Oklahoma hosted two games during the fall. However, Saturday’s three-match slate is the Red River’s unofficial kickoff, and includes the league’s latest squad – LSU.
The Bears finished a disappointing 1-4 last season, but there are reasons for optimism in Waco, Texas. A friendly in November against Texas A&M ended in a narrow victory for Baylor, 34-33. The other key factor that should lead to more wins is a new coaching staff.
Led by Mason Hering, who spent over a decade as a player and coach for the Austin Blacks, the Baylor program strives to rededicate itself.
“We’ve made a big investment in professionalizing our program this year,” said Hering. “You have to raise your standards and handle yourselves like professionals if you expect to win and achieve big goals. We’ve upped our training commitment and partnered with some great local resources to get us fit and prepared for the grind of a long season.”
Just as important as the introduction of Hering is the return of one of the best players in the conference – Pete Hamm. The junior No. 8 has been an instant starter and Baylor’s best player since arriving on campus two-and-a-half years ago.
“He’s physically dominant both on attack and defense, and he’s on the radar of the All-American coaches,” Hering assessed.
Another loose forward, Andrew Honderich, is expected to make a big impact for the Bears after being one of the team’s most improved players during the fall, and proving to be a turnover threat over the ball on defense. Other than Hamm, the team’s other player with major experience is scrum half Santiago Locamuz, who joins Baylor this semester from Argentina. His arrival comes at the perfect time as Cody Asbury manned the position prior to his graduation in December.
The new coaching staff is still concerned with perfecting the game’s basics. However, Baylor feels, if it can control the tempo of its matches and wear teams down physically, it could win a lot of games.
“Even though we finished 1-4 last year, we feel like we can win the Red River Rugby Conference this year,” Hering said confidently.
Louisiana State University
There is no question the Red River Conference grew in both size and strength with the addition of LSU. The Tigers of Baton Rouge, La., have a longstanding tradition of playing quality rugby, and by the looks of the performances over the fall, LSU could be equipped to make a run at a conference title.
“In the fall we were really focused on 15s and preparing for the Red River Conference,” said team president Zach Stratton. “We tried to schedule as many games as possible, and push ourselves to become better individually and as a team.”
Its 48-point win over Arkansas in November was a positive step, and LSU played even better last weekend when it beat the Crimson Tide, 55-12.
“The win last week against Alabama was big for us,” Stratton added. “There has always been a strong rivalry with them, and we were able to settle ourselves down in the second half and play like we know we can.”
Much of the Tigers’ experience lies in the forwards, but their back line could be a difference maker with plenty of pace to burn. Wes LaBorde and Cameron Troxler will be the team’s primary distributors at scrum half and fly half, respectively. However, each can make plays with their feet, as well. At full back, senior Alec Miller will attack the line hard.
It won’t be an easy task to replace All-American hooker Cameron Falcon, who recently graduated, but his little brother will help to ease the loss. Brennan Falcon is a flanker and U20 hopeful, and already one of the best forwards in the conference.
University of Oklahoma
Sooners Head Coach Doug Neubauer has been with the team for over a year now, but was forced to spend last spring semester patching up a program torn by the fallout of its previous staff. Now, Oklahoma is back to winning rugby matches.
The Sooners played two conference matches prior to winter exams in an effort to align home rugby matches with home Oklahoma football games, and won both by a combined 76-10. The wins over Texas Tech and TCU have the Sooners looking like a major contender to the 2016 Red River crown.
“We like to think we have an aggressive attacking style that can adapt to conditions and teams we play against,” said Neubauer.
Holding the team to those attributes are a pair of juniors captaining the squad. Blindside flanker Colton Grantham is the team’s captain, while fly half David Wallace, who collected 31 points over the first two games of the season, is vice captain.
One key figure that won’t suit up in crimson and cream this spring is center Michael Al-Jiboori. After scoring over a dozen tries in Red River player last year and notching a hat trick against TCU in November, Al-Jiboori graduated from the university in December. Fellow centers Jonathan Lucas and Tom Murphy will be called on to make decisive linebreaks in Al-Jiboori’s absence.
University of Texas
The Longhorns are in need of a bounce back season after finishing fourth in the conference last season. In order to improve in the Red River standings an entire squad effort will be needed. Last year’s captains Tommy Gilmore and Taylor Hayes must be replaced following their graduation.
Texas doesn’t have much to show for in terms of warmups for its 15s season, so it’s anyone’s guest as to how they’ll preform in their Jan. 30 Red River opener on the road against Texas Tech.
Texas A&M University
No program was more impressive during the three-event Red River Conference 7s series this fall than Texas A&M. The Aggies won the first two Red River events to earn the No. 1 seed heading into the Championship event. After falling to Texas in pool play of the third and final sevens tournament, A&M rebounded to topple the Longhorns, 36-7, in the Cup Final and claim the Red River Conference 7s.
There is still no telling if the Aggies’ success in sevens will equate to wins in 15s this spring. In fact, Texas A&M couldn’t quite get passed Baylor back in November – narrowly falling to the Bears, 34-33.
Texas Christian University
TCU is still seeking its first Red River win. Following improved recruiting efforts the past few seasons, the Horned Frogs believe they have the talent to compete – they just need to improve the mental aspect of their game.
“Winning is just a mindset,” TCU Head Coach TeShay Flowers said simply. “We have the talent, but lack the mental toughness. Last year was extremely disappointing, but we got better each week.”
Not only is the team improving, it doesn’t have many holes to plug this year. Last year’s team only lost two starters to graduation: captain Scott Hamilton and speedster Narada Jackson.
Junior Chris Valladolid is expected to fill Hamilton’s spot at the back of the scrum playing eight man. Up front, Fidel Estrada will pair with Ke’Arrius Brunson to help form a formidable front row.
In the backs, it starts and ends with TCU’s half back duo of Dillon Thiele and Bryce Watson. Thiele is a senior scrum half and likely the most important Horned Frog on the pitch. Watson, while only a freshman, was a highly-touted high school fly half and should adapt to the college game quickly.
Texas Tech University
The Red Raiders are one of four teams entering the Red River season with a coach different from the one that led the team into conference play last year. This year, Texas Tech RFC alum Jason Bramow is at the helm of a squad that finished with a .500 record in conference play last year.
“Our club prides itself on being strong in the breakdown area, and being able to find and exploit space,” explained Bramow. “We have an aggressive forward pack and backs that can flat out fly.”
A few of the backs that Bramow raves about are sophomore scrum half Gonzalo Eizmendi, senior wing Wes Otto, and junior center Sadiq Sule. The trio is very talented, but also brings different skill sets to the pitch.
In the forwards, senior prop Jake Hoffman is a handful and quite reliable in the set piece.
The Red Raiders took one on the chin in its opener against Oklahoma, but that was back in October. Expect a better-prepared squad to take the field Jan. 30 against LSU.
3) Texas A&M
5) Texas Tech