There have been plenty of tournaments in the Northwest this fall, but the Northwest Collegiate Rugby Conference Qualifier Saturday might actually pit the regions best teams against each other for the first time this fall.
12 teams are entered and split into four pools of three. The top two teams from each pool advance to the quarterfinals. Catch the action live here on RUGBYMag.
Each pool has its clear favorite. In Pool A resides the tournament’s overall favorite – Central Washington. Central played its top side in the Viking 7s in Bellingham, Wash. earlier this fall and finished second to the University of Victoria – a factory that regularly churns our Canadian internationals. The Wildcats beat everyone else in their path.
Then Central sent a team of freshmen and sophomores to Oregon State’s tournament. After slipping up against Washington in pool play, the young Wildcats won the event. Central's full squad will be playing Saturday, with guys like Tanner Barnes and Max Narewski in the lineup. The Schirmer brothers, Aladdin and Maverick, will also be making plays.
Two guys who don’t get as much ink, but are important cogs for Central, are Bijan Ghambari and Jacob Bates.
“[Jacob Bates has] been around for a long time. This is his senior year, and he’s played a ton of rugby for us. He’s kind of always been in the starting lineup as that glue guy. He’s been really good,” said Central coach Tony Pacheco.
“Bijan Ghambari. He’s a really elusive forward. He actually plays fullback in 15s, and we use him at hooker. He’s a great playmaker to have on that half of the field. He can usually step and create some space for guys like Aladdin and Maverick to run. He’s been really good, and he’s been a staple of our program the last couple of years, as well.”
Battling for second place in pool A are Western Oregon and Boise State.
The top dog in Pool B is Western Washington. The Vikings lost a fair amount of players from last season, but they’ve played more 7s than either Eastern Washington or Pacific, their pool opponents. EWU and Pacific enter the contest as relative unknowns.
Oregon State is the team to beat in Pool C, though Oregon is probably the best second-seed of any pool. Seattle is the third team in Pool C.
The Beavers have been competitive this fall, despite missing the services of Pono Haitsuka, who’s been training under contract at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
“We’ve probably struggled to really put the nail in the coffin when we have had possession. We’ve spilt the ball or we haven’t made the last pass or made that good decision when we’ve had a guy outside open or we’ve had half a line break, and that’s probably where we’ve missed Pono the most,” said OSU coach Anthony Lally.
“I think we’ve scrapped fairly well to scramble in defense and try and stay in games, but in the first half of games we’ve let people get a lead and we haven’t nailed out opportunities, yet.”
OSU entered a team in the Bellingham tournament before classes were in session in Corvallis, and the Beavers took a brutal trip to San Luis Obispo, Calif. for the West Coast 7s last weekend, where they didn’t win much, but were competitive against top level teams.
“We were a bit flat, but we wanted to see a different group of teams,” said Lally, “and it was really good to see some of the top California programs on form and see what they looked like, and we learned from that.”
The good news for Oregon State this weekend? Haitsuka might be in the lineup. Lally was non-committal on his star’s availability, but he is registered as a full-time student and eligible, and rumor is he’s going to play.
“That’ll make all the difference in the world to have an explosive play maker like that available,” said Pacheco of Haitsuka and Oregon State. “He will definitely help them out quite a bit.”
Washington is the favorite in Pool D, which also includes Gonzaga and Idaho. The Huskies were the only team to knock off Central’s young side at Oregon State, and they’ve been much improved this fall under the tutelage of former 7s Eagle Kevin Swiryn, who hasn’t let his players build a false sense of confidence off the Central win.
“Did they get confidence? Absolutely, it’s a great program they have there. Did I shatter that confidence shortly after and tell them it wasn’t their best team? Of course I did,” said Swiryn.
“It would be a massive surprise if we were able to take them down, obviously. It was a confidence builder, but whether it’s Central, Oregon State or any team, just going out and doing what we’re training and doing well on the field, those things are the confidence builders. That’s where they’ve come a long way in two short tournaments.”
Washington’s top player is Justin Santos. He’s an explosive athlete offensively and a reliable defender.
“The great thing about our team right now is that although teams have broken our defensive line, it’s very difficult for them to score because Justin’s playing sweeper and he’s a pretty sure tackler,” said Swiryn. “It really helps when teams can’t get past your sweeper – they’ve got to do it a second or a third time in order to actually score. Justin’s been a great benefit on our team, especially defensively.”
“He can be a handful to deal with,” added Pacheco on Santos. “What I saw from him last week, compared to what I saw last year – he kind of tried to do everything and be everything. Now he’s being patient and letting his teammates do some of the work and really taking his opportunities when they come to him. He’s much improved.”
The NCRC will be webstream live on RUGBY Magazine's YouTube Channel. See below.