The Atlantic Coast Invitational will determine the third bid to 7s nationals this weekend. 10 traditional Atlantic Coast Conference schools will compete over two days in Greensboro, NC for the ACI crown.
Day one is pool play. With the field split into two pools, each team plays four games on Saturday. Everyone still has something to play for on Sunday, which starts with a pair of “championship play-in games”. The bottom two finishers in each pool crossover against each other, with the winners advancing to the quarterfinals.
(Follow link for a full schedule)
The reigning ACI champs are the Wolfpack from N.C. State, and they’re expected to be in the hunt for a repeat.
“They took everybody by surprise last year, but the fact that they can keep their team together in the summer gives them a distinct advantage. A lot of their guys stay around for summer school and working in the Raleigh area and they play a lot of tournaments, and they’re a very good team,” said Virginia Tech coach Andy Richards of the defending champs.
“They don’t do anything flash. They’re fit. They’re tough, and they don’t miss a tackle. They play rugby the way it should be played. They really do.”
Richards’ Hokies are in the same pool as N.C. State, and they’ll need the senior leadership of Andrew Seufert and Matt Heitzer if they’re going to come out of day one in good shape.
“They’ve worked really, really hard. I can’t ask anything more from them,” said Richards of his seniors. “I’ve had them out on the track and been running them ragged fitness wise.”
Tech played a pair of tournaments over the summer, and though the results were nothing to write home about, Richards said valuable experience was gained. Another thing Tech has accrued? A quality 7s coach. Johnny Smith, a former professional 7s player from England, will spend the next three months in Blacksburg helping the Hokies before he takes a full-time coaching position at Blackheath back home.
Florida State is another team looking to make a breakthrough this year. Gone is flyhalf and top play maker Dylan Hamilton, but taking the reins as head coach is Kirk Swanner, who’d been the 7s guru in Tallahassee.
FSU is in a unique position, as they’re hosting the Independence Conference 7s tournament, another qualifier for nationals, a week from Saturday. Prior to playing this weekend, the Seminoles have to declare which tournament they’re choosing as a qualifier. If they choose the ACI, but don’t win and then win the Independence, they don’t automatically qualify.
Last time RUGBYMag spoke with Swanner, he was undecided which tournament the ’Noles would use as their qualification vehicle. Odds are, though, with Life and Arkansas State in the Independence, they’ll pick the ACI.
If they’re going to qualify this weekend, Steve Wartepne will have to fill some of the scoring void left by Hamilton.
“Him and Dylan were competing for the leading try scorer. They went head to head all year. We’ve got this new wave of players coming through this year. Steve’s one of the guys that should be leading that fresh new wave of guys coming through,” said Swanner.
“I think he’s been an automatic selection at fullback now since the spring semester his freshman year. We’re looking for him to score some points out wide.”
The team everyone is keeping an eye on this weekend? Maryland. They won the inaugural Atlantic Coast Rugby League (15s) title last season, and they did so with a large contingent of young playmakers. The most notable of them is Matias Cima, the freshman flyhalf phenom from Gonzaga. He’s now a sophomore, and he may well be transferring to Penn State in the spring, so 7s could be his last chance to win a title for the Terps.
Another person that applies to is Richard Hwang. The senior No. 8 runs out of eligibility at the end of the fall semester, so his sole focus is now on 7s. He has a high work rate and will provide heaps of leadership and experience.