Pool F is home to one of only two 7s National Champions – Life. The Running Eagles have played in both 7s National finals, won the Las Vegas Invitational when it was arguably the best college 7s tournament in the land and competed in the CRC twice. Life finished second at the South Independent Championship and received an at-large bid to Nationals.
Navy has routinely played in the CRC and lost in the Plate Championship at Nationals last year. The Midshipmen won the Atlantic Coast’s bid to Nationals pretty comfortably. Colorado State finished second in one tournament and third in another, garnering an at-large bid. And Texas won the Southwest Championship and its way in.
Pat’s Picks: Life is the odds-on favorite to win the pool for the reasons listed above. They have the most athletes and best rugby players in the pool, even with Cam Dolan and Joe Cowley with the the National Team in London (although it seems Cowley made a late flight back for the game). If there’s any detraction for the Running Eagles, it’s that they’ve played their top side in just one tournament all fall. Navy is the same way, though. The Midshipmen are as experienced in 7s as Life, but lack the same kind of firepower. They’re still good, though, and I think they’ll finish second in this pool. Texas, because of its superior experience playing high level 7s, is my pick to finish third. Colorado State has been inconsistent, if anything, which is why they’re picked to finish last.
Players to watch: Glen Maricelli, Paris Hollis, Jake McFadden. While none of these guys is a big stepper who is going to house tries at will, they’re all very good. McFadden is a steady tackler, passer and ball carrier, and he’ll likely be one of Life’s halfbacks. Maricelli has a non-stop motor, is quicker than he looks and stronger than his size suggests. Hollis is a beast, simply put.
Life also has a number of other impressive players on the team, including newcomer Harley Davidson. He is an athletic guy and a growing rugby player who helped Snake River to the men’s DII club semifinals in the spring. Taku Tela was a very solid 7s wing for Life last year, but maybe not super explosive. As a halfback, however, Tela is dangerous. John Murray and Mo Guiziani are also pretty good. Guiziani is a powerful player who makes an impact when he wants to, and Murray led Pride’s vaunted 7s team in high school.
Players to watch: Jack McAuliffe, Spencer Wilson and Ricky Neel-Feller. All of them are very experienced 7s guys who make consistently good decisions and passes. McAuliffe has a bit of a step, and when he’s not playing halfback, is more potent in attack.
Q&A with coach Mike Flanagan
Q: You've got a lot of 7s veterans on the team, don’t you?
A: We do. We've been able to keep the core together for the last two CRCs and this year we knew we had to qualify to get to Nationals, and we did. We went down to the ACRL and played some pretty good 7s.
Q: Outside of McAuliffe, Wilson and Neel-Feller, who are some of the other players we should be watching?
A: Dakota Raymond and Cyrus Wilson (no relation to Spencer) will surprise some guys. They will have some fun. Cyrus is a wing and could see some time at scrumhalf. Dakota plays 10 for us in 15s, so he's a good distributor. Putting Dakota at first receiver allows us to put McAuliffe in more attacking options.
Q: You're not a really big team - powerfully-built, but not tall.
A: Yes most of our guys are 6-0, 200 across the board. We do have David Dolinar, who's a 6-4 lock in 15s who will do most of the lifting when he's on, and Chris Rixey is our No. 8 in 15s and he has great pace and great hands - we expect some big things out of Chris.
Q: It seemed like over the years it was a struggle to get the Navy players to break out of 15s habits and play 7s. Are you getting 7s now?
A: We are. We've got a collaborating coaching staff. Mike Coyney has a great 7s background. Kevin Gerrity was an all-Navy scrumhalf and understands the game. I have been studying up and working on film. As a program we're finding a pattern that works for us. Maybe throwing the ball around and getting aorund the edge isn't us. We've got to play with what we do best - push the defense, stay within what we do, keep our defense right and aggressive. When we get out of that, we run into trouble.
Players to watch: Noah Villalobos, Jeremy Maranitch, Taylor Hayes. Villalobos is a fifth-year senior and gifted athlete. He's also one of the more experienced players in the whole tournament. Between Nationals, the LVI and CRC, this is his 9th major college rugby tournament. Maranitch is the captain and another senior. He has great skills and vision. He's small but not shy in the tackle. Hayes is a junior and a former High School All American with a great step and finishing speed. Hayes started college at 17, so even though it’s his third season at Texas, he's still growing and filling out.
Q&A with coach Jacob Liberman
Q: You had some younger/newer players making an impact this season. How have they jelled into the team and developed leading into Nationals?
A: We have a bunch of new players. They're still green but we did everything we could to accelerate their learning prior to nationals. They are as ready as they can be. The overall level of play in the SWC has gotten much better. UNT, TCU, and Texas State all hired specialist 7s coaches and practiced 7s three times a week or more. That also pushed us to get better.
Q: Didn't perform as well in that tourney in Norman as you would have liked, I'm guessing. What lessons did the team learn from that?
A: It was important for our young players to see that level. We missed a few starters in Norman including Noah and Jeremy. We also rested some starters (including Taylor) against UNT and A&M. We took some lumps, but it was the right move for our development given that we had already qualified for Nationals. Our bottom-up roster played well, narrowly losing to UNT 14-12 and topping Texas A&M 29-10. Overal,l it was a great experience and our play improved throughout the day.
Q: You guys have now played in a lot of high level 7s tourneys between the CRC, Vegas and Nationals. You know what the top level looks like. How does this team stack up against that upper echelon and previous Texas teams?
A: This year we focused on building depth. Last year at Nationals we were either tied or within 5 points at half with Central Washington, Kutztown and Cal. All three of those teams made tactical subs and pulled away in the second half. Depth is also critical to weather injuries as we learned at last year’s CRC. I feel our top 7 is comparable to past years but our bottom 8 is bigger, more athletic, and more skilled than past seasons.
Players to watch: Ben Pinkelman. He is a long, rangy player with plenty of experience. He’s stronger and more agile than his thin frame suggests. He started for the Denver Barbarians all summer, including in the Club 7s Nationals final against Old Puget Sound Beach.
The Rams have had a mixed bag of a season. They traveled all the way to San Luis Obispo, Calif. to play in the West Coast 7s early in the fall and didn’t show well at all. Then they went to the Cougar Invitational in Provo, Utah and finished third, behind Air Force and BYU and ahead of a host of subpar competition. CSU then hosted the Rocky Mountain 7s in Fort Collins and played well enough to make the final before being beaten 41-0 by BYU.
Colorado State had been dealing with a rash of injuries all fall, but time has passed and the Rams have had some time to rest. Coach Justin Mort cited big travel, to California and Utah, as part of the reason for CSU’s success, and when the Rams played at home, they saw more success. CSU can threaten to take some scalps Saturday and Sunday, but Greensboro, NC is a long way from Fort Collins, so it all depends on which team shows up.