The Pacific Mountain West Rugby Conference (PMWRC) kicks off Saturday with a pair of matches, as San Diego State hosts Loyola Marymount and UC Irvine hosts USC.
The Aztecs' first game in DI-AA will also be coach Matt Hawkins’ league debut. The most capped 7s Eagle ever, Hawkins has butterflies heading into this weekend.
“Obviously a little bit nervous. Not quite sure how it’s all going to turn up,” Hawkins told RUGBYMag.com.
“We had a great week last week. The guys have put in a ton of effort. I just want to see them succeed. I’m nervous, but at the same time I’m excited to get out there and let the guys sort of express themselves, because they’ve been waiting a long time for it.”
Saturday will also mark the first time the Aztecs haven’t suited up an All American in some time, too. Duncan Kelm is graduated, leaving the Aztecs with an identity to claim.
Jaime Kelm will captain the side, which Hawkins says has a litany of players who could rise to the occasion and help fill Duncan’s shoes.
“There’s a lot of guys that can step up. We’ve got a wide range throughout our 15 guys, or 22 guys really, that are all sorts of backgrounds and experience levels, and to be honest, that’s the biggest thing that I’m looking for. I’m just looking to see who’s going to step up. Right now, it’s a blank slate, and I’m waiting to see.”
Elsewhere, Irvine is the favorite to beat USC. The Anteaters have had a promising preseason, beating Fresno State and Riverside, as well as finishing second in the Long Beach tournament, in which they beat Loyola Marymount, UC San Diego USC and Cal Poly.
“I think we’re ready to play,” said Anteater captain Gavin Creps. “We’re prepared. We’ve put in a lot of work practicing. We’ve put in the hours, and we’re ready to, hopefully, earn a win.”
Helping stabilize Irvine this year is new head coach Vince McLeod.
“I’d say he’s just been a solid head coach,” said Creps of McLeod. “I think the biggest thing is he’s been very good at organizing, having practice schedules for all of us and running a big program. That’s something we’ve never had before, someone with his organization skills and the ability to run a program like he does.”