Middle Tennessee State
The South Independent Rugby Conference has produced the only two College 7s National Champions ever. In 2011, Life edged Arkansas State 19-12 in the SIRC 7s final and went on to win the National Title. In 2012, Life again beat Arkansas State in the SIRC 7s final by a try, but the Red Wolves avenged the loss, 21-7, in the National Championship Game.
Saturday, Life (undefeated all time in the SIRC 7s tournament) and Arkansas State (which has only ever lost to Life) headline the SIRC 7s field playing in Atlanta.
Fun fact – in both SIRC 7s finals, Joe Cowley scored the game-winning try for Life. Cowley is back playing for the Running Eagles, as is most everyone who competed at the Collegiate Rugby Championship in June, minus Colton Cariaga, who has graduated, and Tyrus Baytops, who is no longer studying at Life University.
Cowley joins the team after competing in the Americas Rugby Championship, as does Cam Dolan. Both will have missed significant 7s training time for the ARC.
Filling Cariaga’s shoes in the halfbacks will be Taku Tela. He played a lot of wing for Life last season, but is being asked to try a new position this year.
“He’s pretty nifty at that position, so he’ll be looking to have a few snipes at halfback,” Life 7s coach Tui Osborne said of Tela.
While the Running Eagles have a very experienced, talented bunch, and some size with guys like Dolan and Mohamed Guizani, a big, physical unit who provided spark off the bench last season, Osborne says they have to get tougher at the breakdown.
“I’m trying to focus more on what we’ve been lacking the last tournaments,” he said. “Our aggressiveness around the rucks, that’s one of the main problems we’ve had. We’ve worked on that a lot building up to this tournament.”
Life has been a victim of college rugby’s scheduling schism this fall. The Running Eagles haven’t played a single match against anyone outside their campus, as the number of fall 7s tournaments has shrunk significantly, with many conferences moving their 7s seasons to the spring. Still, Life has had the benefit of scrimmaging its own, including players from the graduate team.
Arkansas State, on the other hand, has played some pretty decent competition this fall – Lindenwood, Oklahoma, Texas and North Texas, and not lost a game. The Red Wolves have needed the competition, because unlike Life, they lost quite a lot from last season.
Shaun Potgieter is sitting out the fall with an injury, and Zac Mizell and Dean Gericke are gone. That’s three 7s All Americans. Saturday, ASU will be without Dale Bates, a very athletic player looking to have a breakout season, as he was injured in the Allied Rugby Conference tournament in Norman, Okla. last weekend. Gavin Brown, a former High School 7s All American, may also be out this weekend.
Still, Arkansas State keeps finding people to step up and play well. One person who did that last weekend was Tito Chitanda.
“He’s a good attacking player. I think he found a role with defense and tackling,” said Arkansas State coach Matt Huckaby. “He was just knocking people down, and there’s a place for that on the 7s field. I’m really impressed by his tackle rate.”
Another young player to step up this season is Michael Baska, who played his high school rugby for St. Thomas Aquinas in Overland Park, Kan. He’s, as Huckaby puts it, ASU’s version of Zack Test – he does well in the air on restarts and brings skill to the hooker position.
Also contributing more this season is Tom Haussrer, a senior who’s struggled with injuries throughout his time at Arkansas State, but is healthy and playing well.
“He’s an extremely talented player, but has done a lot of work off the field to get his body physically ready for the level he’s performing at now. He just played lights out, played with a lot of heart,” said Huckaby of Haussrer.
“It’s fun as a coach, because you know they’re talented and maybe the one thing they’re lacking is backing himself a little bit more, and then you see him finally start to do that. It just looks like a lot of fun seeing them play with confidence. We’ve got four or five guys that are on the cusp of doing that, and I think that’s what you’re seeing with Haussrer.”
If history is any indicator, Life and Arkansas State will be meeting in Saturday’s final to determine the 2013 SIRC Champion, with the winner receiving an automatic bid to USA Rugby’s College 7s National Championship Nov. 23-24 in Greensboro, NC. But there are 10 other teams in the tournament. The top seed in the third pool is Florida State. The Seminoles, along with Central Florida, might be the most likely to give Life or Arkansas State a challenge, though neither has played much 7s this fall.