|All photos by Pat Clifton|
|Phil Mack scrambling toward try line|
|Moonlight reining in a Barbo|
|Haapapuro staving off an Exile defender|
|Washington offloading in contact|
|Hunter Leland serving a fellow Quin in consolation match|
In only their second ever 7s tournament, Heartland 7s, the Woodlands Exiles went 5-0 en route to the title and six West qualification points. The Houston-area team, which formed just four weeks ago, stormed through pool play, crushing the Kansas City Rogues 42-0, St. Louis Ramblers 35-0 and Dallas Harlequins 29-12.
The newly formed team was led by Phil Mack, Canadian 7s captain and scrumhalf, who was joined by fellow Canadian 7s international John Moonlight. Another impressive player making his debut for the Exiles was wing Yamar Washington, a former Indiana running back and Washington Redskins practice squad member.
The Dallas Harlequins managed to reach the knockout rounds with a last-second victory over the Kansas City Rogues in pool play.
The Harlequins came out of the gates quickly, notching three tries with relative ease. The Rogues, who were sparked by the addition of former Jamaican international Donald Walter (he missed the first game due to work commitments) nearly scored just before halftime, having been awarded back-to-back five-meter attacking penalties, but were turned over. The Quins knocked on deep in their end, but time had elapsed, leaving Dallas up 17-0 at intermission.
Due to the back-to-back penalties, Dallas lost flyhalf and key playmaker Zac Mizell to the sin bin before the halftime whistle, and the Rogues took advantage of the power play, scoring twice, and a third time with Dallas back at full strength. Walter made two of the three conversion attempts, giving the Rogues a 19-17 advantage with just the kickoff to play. However, the ‘Quins secured the restart and scored at the death to advance.
In pool B, which seemed like the tougher pool prior to the tournament actually kicking off, the Denver Barbarians emerged from some tightly contested matches with Aspen, Kansas City and Omaha 3-0. Maximo DeAchaval and Ben Haapapuro were their go-to playmakers.
Aspen, which played Al Caravelli-placed crossovers James Aldridge (prop) and Corey Council (wing) seemingly every minute, finished second in pool B. Trevor Richards, former Nebraska standout and Eagles camp attendee, directed traffic at scrumhalf and Ratu Rinakama (Sacramento Lions fullback in 15s) was electric in the open. It was Apsen’s first tournament together, but their talent was obvious as they blanked the Kansas City Blues in pool play and scored in bunches against the GOATS.
In the semifinal round, the Denver Barbarians utilized their possession advantage and superior experience to oust the Dallas Harlequins 14-5, and the Exiles crushed a fatigued Aspen 46-5. The Exiles were a very fit bunch, as you’d expect from a group coached by Dr. David Pope, whose practice caters to professional and high-level athletes.
“I think the fitness work Dr. Pope has been doing with the boys really paid off today,” said Moonlight. “We just had more gas than everybody else.”
The Exiles needed a bit more than gas in the final, as a couple of unexpected gaffes tripped up the Barbos. The first was a knock in the try zone by wing Ross Kantor, who had ample opportunity to ground the ball near the end of the first half.
The second came after Denver scored what appeared to be the match and tournament-winning try late in the second stanza, which after a DeAachaval conversion put them ahead 21-19. As the ball was touched down, Washington high-tackled the Denver scorer, prompting a yellow card. With little time left, Denver led and had a one-man advantage.
The Barbos won the ensuing restart, but the touch judge, due to what head referee Brian Zapp referred to as “ambiguous lines on the field” signaled the kick had not gone 10 meters. After Zapp stopped play per the assistant referee’s signaling, the AR realized the kick had gone 10 meters and he was in fact looking at the wrong line on the field when making the initial call, which was painted the same color as the 10-meter line (a similar call was believed by some to have been made earlier in the day, but not corrected).
Before Zapp stopped play, a Barbarian made a line break and was threatening to score a try that would have iced the game with no time left. But the whistle brought the ball back to midfield, and the Barbarians knocked on once play restarted, which gave the Exiles the possession they’d turn into the game-winning try.
With the Exiles notching six qualification points, there is now a three-way tie at the top of the West standings between Glendale (who won the first qualifier in Dallas), the Exiles, Dallas (finished second in Dallas and third in Kansas City) and Denver (third in Dallas and second in Denver).
The logjam at the top creates a roadblock for Aspen, who did not compete in Dallas. All of the top-placed teams are expected to compete in Denver, and only three advance to Nationals. In order to advance, Aspen needs to win in Denver and either have a tie-breaker fall their way or two or more teams currently with six points not place in the top four. The final West qualifier is July 23 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Denver
Woodlands Exiles 6
KC Blues 1