Oklahoma has been caught somewhere between a beaing great social club and a high performance setup for the past several years. They've played in the highest level of competition available to them. The facilities are there – one of the best natural grass pitches in the country and a clubhouse sitting across from the hallowed Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium.
Athletes have been there – Taylor Mokate, Kelton Miller, Arryn and Dakota Wilkinson, Joe Bach, Zac Givens, Bobby Impson, Patrik Jones and Michael Al-Jiboori. Some of those guys having played football or wrestled at OU, been an Eagle, been on club 7s teams that went to Nationals or in the age-grade system.
Oklahoma has a recruiting ground that’s discretely fertile. High school programs like Union, Jenks and Bixby churn out quality athletes and players most every year. Union won the High School division at the CRC in June. And there are the occasional Texas high school players who matriculate to Norman, Okla.
But the Sooners have struggled to get over the hump in both 7s and 15s. At the 2011 and 2012 Collegiate Rugby Championships, they looked good at times, dangerous even, but through a lack of fitness and focus, failed to maintain continuity.
The culture is changing, though. Jason Horowitz is the new head coach. Having cut his teeth at Kutztown, he’s brought in a renewed sense of competitiveness. He’s asking more of his players, and so far, he’s getting it. The team’s new motto – “Good teams buy in, great teams lock in and championship teams are all in,” has the Sooners with an Allied 7s tournament victory and a 15s win over Notre Dame on the road.
“I couldn’t be happier with the changes that we’ve made culturally,” said Horowitz. “Going from a team that has for quite some time been training two nights a week, going to twice that, plus film sessions, recovery on Sundays and all that type of stuff. They’ve adopted it tremendously, which I think is a big part of the immediate success in teamship that they’ve seen.”
Every year there’s a team that makes the playoffs in pretty much every level of the domestic game for the first time in a long time, if ever. And when asked what the difference was, that year from all the others, the answer is usually commitment. Whether it’s a new coach, a new captain, or a new crop of players that’s responsible for injecting the commitment, it usually circles back around to a team putting in more work, more consistently than they had before.
Oklahoma appears to be doing that. It’s too early to crown the Sooners national champions or to consider them in the same ilk as Kutztown, Arkansas State, Central Florida or some of the other great club programs in the country. But the Sooners should be taken more seriously.
Right now Impson, OU’s best 7s player, is out with injury. He helped the Denver Barbarians to the Club 7s National Championship final in August, and Horowitz hopes to get him back midway through the fall season. Dakota Wilkinson graduated, and veteran try scorer Brad Henry timed out.
But, luckily for Horowitz, guys like Al-Jiboori, a junior, and Jones, a senior are playing and buying in. Both are good athletes – guys any team Oklahoma runs up against wishes it had. Al-Jiboori is a more dynamic runner, with pace and power to score when others can’t. Jones is a bigger unit who moves better than you might think at first glance. He won the MVP at the first Allied 7s event.
“Mike has completely revamped his entire attitude towards leadership… I told him that he is going to be the captain of this team, and he’s going to learn to be a captain, and I have been working with him,” said Horowitz of Al-Jiboori.
“He was a tough guy to get along with on the field. Very athletic, very competitive, and the culture we’re in now suits him a million times more than the previous culture. He’s the guy that wants to be going right from class, right to the gym, right to the rugby field, and then right back to the library. That’s his type of mentality. Whereas, a good portion of the team’s mentality was, ‘Well, alright we’ve got rugby practice’.
“Patrik Jones. He leads more by example than by voice, but when he opens his mouth, the guys listen. They respect him a lot.”
The Sooners aren’t just leaning on old veterans, either. Sophomore Jake Turner, from The Woodlands, Texas, is playing well and providing an example, too.
“There’s good young leadership, there’s great older leadership,” said Horowitz. “Across the board, I couldn’t be happier with the way these guys have embraced the culture, and they’re driving it forward.”
Where does the road forward lead? For the fall, it’s USA Rugby’s College 7s National Championships. Oklahoma sits atop the ARC 7s standings with two tournaments to go, in College Station and Norman. An automatic bid to Nationals is on the line. In the spring, OU will play 15s in the Allied Rugby Conference with Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech and Sam Houston, looking for its first conference championship since before conferences separated from local and territorial unions.