BOULDER, Colo. – In only its second year as a D1A Independent, and with a head coach who is only beginning his second full season with the program, Arizona is a bit of a mystery.
Playing out of the PAC Rugby Conference with limited fixtures against D1A teams made it slightly difficult to gauge where the Wildcats fit amongst D1A’s best. What is easy to determine is that this Arizona team has been stockpiling young talent over the past few years.
Players with High School All-American experience, as well as athletes coming from some of the best high school rugby programs in the nation, litter the Wildcats’ roster. It’s not only the quality of players Head Coach Sean Duffy has lured to Tucson, Ariz., but the number of student-athletes, as well.
“With over 50 new players either recruited or walking onto the program, it’s important to use the fall to develop our sevens and our 15s, while focusing a bit more on the strength and conditioning aspect,” Duffy said.
As the team did a year ago, Arizona is fitting both sevens tournaments and developmental matches in the 15s code into the fall portion of its season. With plenty of able and eager bodies awaiting minutes, as well as important sevens fixtures like West Coast Sevens – which could help in determining eligibility for the USA Rugby College 7s National Championships – Duffy designates each player for a single code.
“In training, we actually split the group up between 15s and sevens,” Duffy devised. “This way, we don’t overwork guys in the fall.”
So far, the results have supported Duffy and his staff’s manipulation of their fall preparation. In an extremely competitive field at the Oct. 10 West Coast Sevens, the Wildcats won their pool and eventually finished third. More recently, Arizona dominated rival Arizona State in a developmental 15s match, 60-14. The score line was especially impressive given that each player in the Wildcats’ starting lineup was playing his first college rugby game.
“Both teams were roughly 90-percent freshmen in that JV match, and we started 15 freshmen,” Duffy described. “It’s a great young group, and we’re excited to see what they can do.”
The 46-point margin of victory demonstrates a complete team performance, but hooker Steven Branham, fly half Brian Hannon, and eight man Tyler Hansen – scorer of a hat trick – were especially notable.
As for returning players, Cesar Davila will captain this year’s Wildcats, and “has worked his tail off,” according to Duffy. Entering his third season starting in Arizona’s back row, junior flanker Sam Peri has begun to fill out his 6-foot-5 frame and continues to become a more confident rugby player. In the backs, Jonah Eldridge is a former High School All-American who spent the summer training with and playing sevens for Olympic Club. Eldridge has returned to campus an improved overall player, and could pair with junior Kyle Rogers in the half backs.
Looking beyond the fall, Arizona will have its hands full with one of the most imposing schedules in the country. Outside of its PAC Rugby Conference schedule that will include the likes of Arizona State, Cal, and UCLA, Duffy and Co. have lined up fixtures against defending National Champion Saint Mary’s and No. 3-ranked Lindenwood.
“We know to become the best we have to play a rigorous schedule and we’ve set out to do that,” explained Duffy.
Regardless of the challenges Arizona will face in order to reach its first D1A Playoff, the mojo surrounding the squad has been all positive.
“We’re just looking forward to what the future holds,” Duffy said. “Guys are showing up to training smiling each day because they see how bright the future is, and that if we work hard and do things the right way, our belief is that good things will happen.”
The Wildcats remaining fall campaign includes another daunting field at the Nov. 7-8 PAC-12 Sevens tournament, and a second developmental 15s match, this time against Grand Canyon University on Nov. 13.