The second annual Big Ten 7s Tournament kicks off Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, with all 12 schools from the traditional Big 10 Conference slated to compete. The field is split into four pools of three, with the top two advancing to the quarterfinals.
The tournament champion will not only receive an automatic bid to the USA Rugby College 7s National Championship in College Station, Texas later this month, but also to the Collegiate Rugby Championship in Philadelphia next spring.
Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State and Indiana have the most high-level 7s experience of all the Big Ten teams, having competed in the CRC and/or the National Championships.
Penn State has competed in every CRC, but not done particularly well in any of them, finishing 14th, 8th and 13th. But the Nittany Lions already have a tournament title under their belts this fall, winning Halloween 7s in Newark, Del. They rebounded from a 1-2 start in pool play and beat Kutztown and Delaware in the knockout stages. Blaze Feury won the tournament MVP.
Along with Feury, the Nittany Lions are led by senior Dom DeFalco, big Dan Metcalf (6-4, 220) and Greg Voigt. DeFalco and Metcalf have received invites to travel with the famed Atlantis touring side. While veteran leadership is big for Penn State, what the Nittany Lions have lacked is real speed.
“We’ve got some young players that are going to bring some speed to the team that we haven’t had before. That’s one thing we’ve always been missing is some real top-end speed,” said Penn State coach Don Ferrell.
“We play a slightly different style of 7s than a lot of folks do, and it takes a while to get used to it. It takes a lot of fitness, takes a lot of teamwork to play the kind of 7s and the pressure defense we want to play, and we have some guys who have been in the system for some years now and they’re really starting to pick it up and are able to help us translate to other players, younger players, so we’ll see.”
Indiana has also won a 7s tournament this fall. Granted, it’s been a couple of months since, but the Hoosiers won a four-team event in Cincinnati, beating Cincy, Miami (OH) and Ball State. Indiana went back to 15s for most of the rest of the semester and sneaked into the playoffs despite ending their season on a loss to Ohio State.
The Hoosiers have since held a 7s camp, and preparation for this weekend has been a good distraction from the loss to the Buckeyes.
“The team was fortunate to be able to turn the page quickly and get focused on 7s,” said Indiana coach Marcus Hurley, “and it provided another immediate opportunity to cap off the fall on a positive note.”
Indiana participated in the inaugural CRC in 2010, but hasn’t been invited back since. With the Big Ten now being a qualifier for nationally-televised competition, the Hoosiers are hoping to play their way to Philadelphia.
If they’re going to do so, they’ll be led there by sophomore 7s captain Jonathan Enari, whose father used to coach IU.
“He started as a freshman, he started all this year (in 15s), but he’s especially good and competitive on the 7s game,” said Enari. “He’s very much a creator and a playmaker. He’s got kind of the traditional islander step. Just kind of an exciting rugby player to watch, so I’ll be interested to see how he does.”
This weekend will be Wisconsin’s first 7s tournament of the fall, but the Badgers were one of only two teams to compete in both the National Championships and the CRC last season, giving them some valuable experience. They kick started that campaign by winning the inaugural Big Ten tournament, beating Penn State 21-14 in the final. The Badgers are also eager to win their way back into the CRC this weekend.
“That was a great trip. They loved it,” said Wisconsin coach Skip Heffernan, acknowledging the team's desire to return to the CRC. “The only problem is there are 11 other teams that feel the same way.”
Outside of the favorites, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota have some strong connections to 7s. Illinois is led by captain John Hugulet, who played with the Chicago Lions this summer. He has a lot of knowledge and experience for the team to lean on, complimented by the fact that much of the rest of the Fighting Illini 7s squad played as a team between semesters. Nebraska has a close connection with the Aspen 7s program, with some of their players suiting up in the West 7s circuit and their coach, Niko Waqalavi, helping coach Aspen. Likewise, Minnesota has a longstanding connection with Youngbloodz.
Starting with the knockout rounds, the tournament will be streamed live via Ohio State’s UStream.