BOULDER, Colo. – The West Conference is comprised of four colleges that reside in the Eastern Rockies: Air Force, Colorado State, University of Colorado and University of Wyoming. The four programs have a history of battling one another on the pitch dating back to 1972.
The Conference also has a history of successful seasons. The Air Force Academy has won three National Championships dating back to 1989, and the West had a representative in the National Semifinals five times from 2000-2008. Could 2014 be the year in which another team from the West makes a run for a National Championship?
The Zoomies are one of the most consistent rugby teams in the country. No matter have many good rugby players graduate from the program in a given season, you can always count on Air Force to be tough, fit and play a full 80-minute match.
This spring, Air Force has the makings of another good team. The fall sevens season saw Air Force qualify for the USA Rugby College 7s National Championship after defeating Brigham Young University in the finals of the Cougar 7s Invitational. At College 7s, the Zoomies played extremely well at times, including giving eventual champion Arkansas State its toughest match of the entire weekend.
Although 15-a side rugby is a completely different game than sevens, Air Force Head Coach Joe Muehlbauer believes the fall season helped get his players into a winning mentality.
“In sevens we were getting guys used to winning, expecting to win,” said Muehlbauer. “We have that mindset in sevens and we try to carry it over to 15s because we have had success in 15s, too.”
Helping to maintain the success from this fall going into 2014 will be Eric Schreck at center and flyahalf Joe Rippe. The two seniors will assist in giving Air Force a powerful backline attack.
Air Force, as usual, is a complete team. Even with the current absence of four starters due to injury, including loosehead prop Matt Piazza and Zach White, the Zoomies have plenty of muscle in the forwards. This group takes the lead from captain and two-time All-American Jack Bristol. The 2013 College 7s All-Tournament Selection is long, athletic and can be utilized anywhere along the backrow.
Along with Bristol, Jake Morin will be a load for West teams to deal with. The lock stands at six-foot-five, 250 pounds and is an absolute beast on defense. Helping to fill in for a banged-up Air Force frontrow is Greg Search, who is not expected to miss a beat.
Despite a difficult 25-19 loss to the University of Arizona on the road earlier this month, Air Force will be a force in the West and on the national stage in 2014.
Reigning champ of the West Conference, Colorado State hopes to build on its success from 2013. With their conference title, the Rams earned a home playoff match against Cal Poly, but Cal Poly used a torrent second-half charge to upend Colorado State.
If Colorado State wants to make it back to the round of eight and beyond this spring they will have to do so without the services of Ben Pinkleman. Pinkleman, who played in the College 7s National Championship with Colorado State in the fall, is taking the semester off to train with the Denver Barbarians.
Still, the Rams have a quick backline capable of piling on points. This unit is led by scrumhalf Carmine Hernandez. While Hernandez directs the backs, Stephan Karas leads a small but mobile group of forwards. Karas is the captain for the 2014 Rams and is a hard-hitting prop.
Colorado State has used wins against Colorado School of Mines and a 69-11 thumping of New Mexico to gear up for its D1A schedule. Their tests will become much more difficult heading into conference play, but the Rams look ready to defend their West crown.
University of Colorado
The Buffs had a strong 2013, making the final round of eight in D1A’s playoffs before losing to Saint Mary’s in California. The 2014 Colorado Rugby Club has a similar look from last year’s unit after only losing a few starters – namely All-American Brendan Cox and eight man Kevin Barry.
Captaining the 2014 Buffaloes will be Jean-Claude Trublet de Nermont in the forwards and Zach Savage at 13. Joining Savage in a uniquely interchangeable backline is All-American Sean Kilfoyle, utility back Brian Garey and a potential breakout player in Pierre Poupeau at winger.
A familiar face playing a different position for Colorado is Brian Wanless. The bruising runner moved from frontrow to inside center. When Wanless is healthy, he is one of the tougher guys to bring down in the conference.
The Buffs have notched wins against the Denver Barbarians’ B-Side and Boulder Rugby Club in the early going, but like all of the teams from the West have lacked ideal outdoor training opportunities in 2014.
“That’s a challenge we all face in cold-weather cities,” said Colorado Head Coach Jim Snyder. “Right now we are very rusty and very raw. We’ve recognized over the last three years playing a consolidated 15s season in the spring that it’s not until week five or six of playing regularly that we start to mesh and play well. We just need to hope that we can piece it together on the day, with an eye on getting better and better so we’re hitting our stride right as the playoffs come along like we did last year.”
University of Wyoming
The Cowboys from Laramie, Wyo., are a very young squad this season. There are plenty of positions that have been taken over by first year starters, and even first-year rugby players. That said, the youth in the Wyoming program is hardworking and athletic.
People familiar with Wyoming rugby are used to the Cowboys possessing a large, powerful group of forwards that methodically control the game in the middle of the pitch. This year’s Wyoming team may just have a different look to them.
Scrumhalf Alex Knowles will be looking for first receiver Nick Prudhomme, who has moved from eight man to flyhalf. Centers Ben Pacheco and Bobby Watkins are strong runners with experience. This core group of players is not large in numbers, but they have talent and will do their best to get the youngsters up to speed.
The Cowboys had a successful trip to Albuquerque, N.M., leaving with convincing wins against New Mexico and UTEP. The competition stiffens this weekend when Wyoming kicks off its D1A schedule with a visit to the Air Force Academy. With the conference schedule looming, one big question remains for Wyoming: how fast will all the new players gel?
$ 1. Air Force
$ 2. Colorado
$ 3. Colorado State
$ 4. Wyoming