Through two qualifiers in the Midwest, what could be considered the most competitive club 7s territory of them all, the Chicago Lions are undefeated. First they won Firehouse 7s in greater Chicago and Saturday they won Lakefront 7s in Milwaukee.
They nearly faltered Saturday in pool play against Cleveland when they started slow with a number of reserves on the field, but rebounded to shut out 1823 and beat the Youngbloodz by three scores en route to the title.
“We had Western Michigan celebrating on the field because they lost to us by like 14 points. We get the best out of all the teams, so it’s a victory to just score against us, or if they get close to beating us they’re really happy about it,” said Lions 7s coach Aaron Manheimer.
“We’ve got to get up for every game, no matter what the record of the team is that we’re playing. We recovered and we turned it on when it matters, that’s the big thing we’re working on this year. We’ll be more consistent as the season goes on and our bench gets a little deeper.”
The Lions’ bench should be considerably deeper at the next qualifier in Cleveland July 14, when they get back the services of Brad Harrington and Mark Roberts.
Roberts is a long-time play maker for the Lions who is just joining the team. He could factor in at prop, or the Lions could use him to spell Rocco Mauer on the wing.
Harrington was perhaps Cal’s best 7s player at last month’s Collegiate Rugby Championship, and he, too, has yet to step on the field for the Lions.
“We’re just letting him recover from getting banged up in the CRC,” said Manheimer. “We’re looking forward to getting him out there. He was great for us last year. I really like the way he plays.”
JP Eloff and Rocco Mauer are also in their second summer playing with the Lions, and they’re both stepping up as consistent play makers.
“JP’s been playing great offense and defense, and Rocco’s been coming along. He scored some big tries for us. He had a pretty good one against the Youngbloodz this past weekend,” said Manheimer. “JP was a little flatter this weekend, but he was our best player at Firehouse, owning his opposite centers.”
The Lions have also been helped out by the improved play of Jordan Highberger, who stepped in at flyhalf for the retired Scott Peterson.
“He played really well this year. His defense is outstanding, and he’s actually been receiving a few of the kickoffs,” said Manheimer. “He’s been playing really well -- aggressive on offense and defense opening things up for JP and Rocco.”
Nick Viviani and Max Narewski are in their second season with Chicago, too, as the Lions have returned practically everyone except Peterson and Peter Tiberio. While Belmont has been decimated by turnover, the Utah Warriors are no longer a club and a lot of last year’s contenders are experiencing big shakeup, Chicago has maintained consistency. That could play in the Lions’ favor come Nationals.
“I think we’re going to really need something like that if we’re going to beat a team that’s stacked like OPSB or the Old Aztecs. It’s always sort of been our weapon,” said Manheimer.
“We have to rely on a system and being really fit and working hard, because we don’t have the same sort of sidestepping capabilities. Not that we don’t have our own talents, but we kind of rely more on team effort, so I’m definitely hoping it helps get us through to Nationals and gets us into the top four of Nationals.”