The Wichita Barbarians, second seed out of the West, are set to play the Austin Blacks, champs of Texas, in the DIII Round of 16 Saturday in Irving, Texas.
In previous years, this match would have been played in the West playoffs, but as a Geographic Union, Texas sent its champ straight to the Sweet 16 this year.
“We’re pretty undersized in the front row,” said Brent Zluticky, scrumhalf and PR representative for the Barbarians.
This, in addition to challenging weather during the spring season, impacted practice attendance but did not prevent Wichita from qualifying for Nationals. This is the third appearance at the tournament in five years for the Barbarians. Wichita is a one-club town, and the Barbos are a one-team club.
In contrast, the Blacks field a consistently competitive DI side, which is also set for the playoffs this weekend. The Barbarians will be traveling with only 26 players. That is two under the USA Rugby maximum of 28 for competitive tournaments, which is the amount the Austin Blacks will be bringing according to Coach Steve Corcoran.
“We’re excited about an opportunity to play in the Sweet 16 again; to test our players on the national field,” Corcoran said.
Austin boasts three pitches and a clubhouse at Burr Field to train their teams on. Their top scorers include flyhalf Diego Sotelo and wing Rickie Johnson, but Corcoran finds their play between the forwards and backs to be very interlinked with not one group dominating.
The toughest hurdle for Austin came off the field, as the Blacks had to take the field against the Dallas Reds just 24 hours after the devastating injury of one of their Australian-born teammates, Andrew Bassett, who was struck by a vehicle and put into a coma due to injuries. Bassett has since recovered and made the trip back home.
Unlike Austin’s, the bulk of Wichita’s tries com from two people, Andy and Tim Dinh, fly half and full back respectively, Zluticky said.
Also included on the list of Wichita’s top scorers is Nathan Graham, loosehead prop, who is a mobile front row player. The Dinh brothers are “really explosive with ball in hand” and newer to rugby with Andy in his first year and Tim only having played a year-and-a-half. Both former track stars have “really fallen in love with the sport,” according to Zluticky.
Wichita has won their first-round matches in previous appearances, including in 2012. Both teams from the Heart of America in 2012, Wichita and the Kansas City Blues, fought their way into the Elite 8.
Zluticky shared, “Our conference is really competitive,” with two teams three hours from each other going to the Elite 8 the same year. Wichita lost steam the second day of the tournament in 2012.
“As long as we stay healthy, our squad has a great shot of kicking that door in this year,” said Zluticky.
The other team coming from the Heart is the Kansas City Islanders. Wichita beat the Islanders in the regular season, but lost to them at the Westerns tournament, which the Islanders went on to take first place in.