Pool B is stratified into three tiers. At the top there’s St. Mary’s, below them there’s Oklahoma and Arizona State – teams that have enough talent to be really dangerous, and then there’s Middle Tennessee State, who no one expects much out of.
The Gaels have played in two really good tournaments, finishing third in one and winning the other, and they’ve won a lesser tournament. Oklahoma won two tournaments with relative ease, and have had mixed results against tougher competition. Arizona State has played only top-notch events, but not had an immense amount of success. Middle Tennessee State has played in exactly one tournament and did well enough to qualify.
Pat’s Picks: St. Mary’s will win this pool. The Gaels are deep, experienced and athletic. Arizona State versus Oklahoma, the first game of the tournament for both teams, will likely decide who finishes second. Arizona State has a little more talent across the board, so I’ll pick the Sun Devils to finish second, Sooners third and MTSU fourth.
Players to watch: Garrett Brewer, Cooper Maloney, Joey Reavey. St. Mary’s is deeper with more talent, like Lloyd Evans and Bubba Jones, too. Brewer, a flyhalf in 15s, is very long. He played with SFGG at Club 7s Nationals and the World Club 7s this summer. He’ll be vital in the restart game and is a quality stepper. Maloney plays usually at center or wing, and he’s a guy that break pattern to make a play. Reavey is the halfback that makes it all go.
Q&A with Garrett Brewer
Q: You guys have traditionally played some of your bigger players, including 15s props and hookers, on the 7s team. You’re slimmer this year. How has that changed the team?
A: Our starting 7s this year I think is the strongest starting 7 we’ve had since 7s started. We’re all fast, fit, mobile and we all having pretty good recognition of the game, so that definitely helps out.
Q: Have you guys changed your approach this year? That Battle in the Bay win was pretty resounding.
A: We haven’t changed our philosophy or our strategy. It’s just grown this year. The hardest thing the first year was get people to buy into what we wanted to do and kind of stay away from that 15s style of play, and throughout these last few years we’ve had a lot of guys returning and really buying into what we want to do and our style of play and it’s grown the past few years into actually being successful now.
Players to watch: Adam Sandstrom, Alex Sandstrom, Ryan Koewler. Junior All American Adam Sandstrom is now joined in Tempe by his broter Alex, who ASU coach Gary Lane says is just as impressive an athlete. Koewler is the team captain. At about 6-4, he provides some impressive size and pace to the Sun Devil squad, and he’s been tough to stop with ball in hand.
Q&A with coach Gary Lane
Q: You guys have had a bit of an up and down season. You’ve been a few points off of beating some big teams. You’ve had some injuries. How do you like your chances at being competitive this weekend?
A: I think we’re going to be competitive. The guys that were banged up are now healed. Practices have been running well. We’re taking a full-strength side. We’re going to compete on every level. One of the things we’ve been working on is our consistency. The guys the last few practices have been working hard on that, and I think you’ll see a better product.
Q: You haven’t played St. Mary’s, but you were at the Battle in the Bay and got a chance to see them. What did you think?
A: They’ve got some very talented athletes. I mean, they won the Battle in the Bay. They beat Cal, and they’re not a team to be taken lightly. I definitely think we want to compete with them. I think they’re a very solid, consistent group. They’ve done very well this year.
Players to watch: Michael Al-Jiboori and Patrik Jones. Both Al-Jiboori and Jones have been to CRCs and Nationals with the Sooners before. They’re both big, strong, physical specimens. Al-Jiboori is a little smaller and has more of a step and more pace, while Jones is taller and thicker. Both are a load in contact.
Q&A with coach Jason Horowitz:
Q: You’ve had a season of two halves. In two-and-a-half tournaments you’ve played less-than-stellar competition and won every game. The last two events you’ve played in, you’ve run up against the likes of Arkansas State, Davenport and Lindenwood with mixed results. How has the dichotomy of the two halves of your seasons prepared you?
A: The guys have been working really hard and the structure and the discipline’s coming along really well. You’ve got to remember that this team didn’t go .500 last year playing the same type of competition that we played in the ARC this year, so to go undefeated there and then get some opportunity to play some great competition has really helped us develop. There’s a lot of young guys on the team that haven’t played competitive 7s before that have come on strong. A lot of leadership was built. I think we’re a much different team now than we were even as we finished our ARC season.
Q: Arizona State has a son of Oklahoma in David Todd. He played at Tulsa Union in high school and for the Oklahoma Rugby Academy 7s team in the summer, leading him to the High School 7s All American team. I’m sure there are guys on your team who know him, aren’t there?
A: Actually, our captain Michael Al-Jiboori and David Todd played together in high school. I’m sure they’ve been chatting, and I know that they’re excited to play each other, and it’s great when you get to have some friends across the field that you can compete against.
Q: Can you compete with the likes of St. Mary’s and some of the other heavyweights in Greensboro?
A: We’re prepared to play anyone who steps out on the field with us. We’ve got to make sure that we stay disciplined, make our one-on-one tackles, take care of the rugby ball in contact, all those critical things, and not let the ball get through us when it shouldn’t. That’s some of the things that Arkansas State was able to do to us. I think we played them a little bit tentative, and I think our strength is our defense when it’s on. It was on against Lindenwood. We were able to pressure them, get them in their half, get some penalties, turn over some ball and had the right guys in the right spot to score. We’re looking forward to playing St. Mary’s as well as MTSU and Arizona State, that’s for sure.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
Players to watch: Jamie Phillips, Drew Stone, Josh Pentecost. Phillips is relatively new to rugby but a plus-level athlete who has taken on a leadership role. Drew Stone is a Tennessee transfer that has stepped in as a contributor right away. And Pentecost is a big, strong, aggressive ball-winning forward.
Q&A with coach Jody Hensley:
Q: You guys have played the only two National Champions, Arkansas State and Life, each of the last three falls at the South Independent Championship. How has that experienced shape your team?
A: Some people want to shy away from it. They don’t want to play those guys. They know they’re going to get beat. But I try to take a different attitude with it – that’s who we want to play, because that’s where we want to be. If you don’t play it, you don’t know what it is. Even though we’re not beating them, it’s a good thing to have them there to measure ourselves and see where we’re at.
Q: Not a lot of outside expectations for MTSU this weekend. How do you feel your team can compete?
A: My guys know they played a fairly competitive game with Arkansas State, so they look at themselves, the fourth seed in the pool, and see they’re maybe not thought as high of as some of these teams that have been there before. We’ve never been there, so we’ve still got to prove ourselves. They’ve played the best in the country, so they kind of figure they’re somewhere between that and where they’re at and they’ve just to figure out where they fall.