The final leg of the Allied Rugby Conference’s 7s series takes on a new look Saturday in Norman, Okla. The five teams who’ve been competing all along – Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Sam Houston and Baylor – will be in one pool. Four out-of-conference teams – Arkansas State, Lindenwood, North Texas and Texas – will be in another.
Both pools play a full round-robin, with the winners of each facing off in the championship game, the second-place teams playing each other, etc.
The Norman tournament itself is not a qualifier, but the ARC 7s series is. Coming into the final weekend, Oklahoma has a tight stranglehold on first place, having won both of the first two events. The Sooners, who haven’t lost yet, would have to finish fourth or worse to not claim the conference title and the Allied’s automatic bid to Nationals. The Sooners are hoping to finish the ARC series with an unblemished record before taking on new competition.
“There’s no doubt about it. The guys are very excited about finishing the series strong and also getting to test themselves against some opponents they haven’t played yet,” said Oklahoma coach Jason Horowitz.
“These teams, every week that we’re playing, are getting better, and that’s exciting because that means that they’re taking the challenge, they’re going back, they’re learning from it, and it’s really interesting see them doing some of the things that we do and our guys picking up on some of the things that they do. What better learning experience could you have for a bunch of young teams?”
In the other pool are two teams likely to make it to Nationals and another that’s already qualified. The Longhorns clinched a bid to Nationals by winning the Southwest Championship last month, and Arkansas State, the defending National Champion, will try to qualify at the South Independent Championship Oct. 26 in Atlanta. Lindenwood doesn’t have a qualifier to clinch a bid through, but the Lions are probable candidates to receive an at-large bid.
Lindenwood will have a stronger team in Norman than went undefeated at the Notre Dame Invitational last week. Morgan Findlay will be expected to play the whole tournament, heralded freshman Sione Fangaiuiha is expected to return from a torn PCL and Lindenwood’s best forward, Sebastian Kalm, is available.
Arkansas State traveled up to St. Charles, Mo. and played the Lions in a series of 7s matches and a developmental 15s game earlier this fall. The Red Wolves’ top 7s side wound up besting Lindenwood, but the games were close.
ASU has lost a lot of firepower from last year. Gone are 7s All Americans Zac Mizell and Dean Gericke, and Sean Potgieter is sitting out the fall with an injury. The cupboard is far from bare, though.
Dylan Carrion, Harry Higgins and Steyn Benade are regular 7s starters who return. Zinzan Elan-Putick is back in Jonesboro, too, but will likely sit out this weekend to rest an injury. And guys like Gavin Brown, Michael Baska and Dale Bates, role players in the National Championship effort, are going to assume bigger responsibility.
“Dale Bates is doing really well now. He’s seeming to thrive. I’m proud of both on the field, off the field stuff with him. He just keeps maturing and doing good day in and day out,” said ASU coach Matt Huckaby.
“I really want to see him take the next step in rugby, because he can do stuff on the field, and I’ve been around before, that no one else can do. He can shoot you right in the foot, too. I want to see less of the shoot yourself in the foot now and more of the brilliant, God-given athletic ability.
“[Baska] was a freshman last year, and he’s really kind of become a role player. He’s our Zack Test, our win the ball in the air guy, although he’s not all that tall. He sure has a good vertical and gets up in the air really well. And Dylan’s just our little general. Then Harry Higgins, our big Australian, has stepped it up a lot this year. I say all that to say, we’ve lost a lot from last year, of course, but it never ceases to amaze me how it kind of tends to make room and guys step into those roles and it’s a neat thing to see them step up their level.”
Texas has also lost some really good players to injury or otherwise, like U20 camp invitee Fernando Assing, Noah Villalobos and captain Jeremy Maranitch. The Longhorns hope to have Assing and Maranitch back by Nationals.
Luckily, though, there are some talented newcomers. Peter Hyams is an English exchange student that will provide plenty of skill and experience to the forwards. Felix Olazaron, a transfer student from Mexico, is in the Mexican 7s pool and now in Austin. Freshman Reed Hogan, out of St. Thomas (Houston), was the Texas High School Player of the Year in 2013. And Matt Young was a Texas high school football star who's now giving rugby a go.
“We're excited to play ASU and Lindenwood. It’s a great test. We have a young team, so it’s crucial that we blood our new players against top competition prior to Nationals,” said Texas coach Jacob Liberman.
“We hit our individual and team performance metrics pretty well during the qualifier semis and final of our qualifier. Our goal is to sustain our numbers against these established 7s programs. It goes without saying that we need to maintain our effort while eliminating unforced errors to have success against these teams.”