CONFERENCE 1 POOL A
Pat: Life is the easy pick in Pool A, and I like things that are easy, so I'll take the Running Eagles. Claremont and St. Joe's have talent, and both return to Vegas after a disappointing run in last year's event, so they're probably coming to finish some business, but Life is too good. Buffalo is a completely unkown 7s commodity.
Alex: Not exactly taking a risk by picking Life, but really Life is only beginning to develop their 7s abilities, and will likely play better in Vegas than they did at the USA Rugby nationals in Texas. I think if Claremont Colleges can fix their open-field tackling, which was exposed in recent games, they will do well.
CONFERENCE 1 POOL B
Alex: Pool B is another with an obvious favorite. Kutztown University, led by Tim Acker, plays a pretty free-wheeling game and has the teamwork to take apart less experienced teams. Of the other three, Missouri seems to have the best raw talent, but I will defer to you, Pat, on details.
Pat: Yes, Missouri has some talent. They're not an overall fast team, but forwards Matt Brotemarkle, Ryan Scheidt and Dan Kloeckner are workhorses. They could all be pretty good at 7s. I wonder about their fitness, and how seriously they're taking 7s prep, but Mizzou could surprise. One team I think will surprise is Creighton. They're fast, usually fit and actually play pretty sound 7s. They did well last year, and I know they are taking it seriously. The Blue Jays are probably the second best team in this pool.
But, the winner is a foregone conclusion, Kutztown would have to stumble pretty hard to not win this one, so they're my pick.
CONFERENCE 1 POOL C
Pat: My pick in Pool C is Miami. The Reds have everything you could want in a 7s team, except for blinding pace. Mike Pelagalli is probably their fastest guy, and he's quick, but not a burner. The rest of their lineup is very solid, physical and experienced. This team has more 7s experience together than any other college 7s team in America. Who's the best of the rest? Air Force can be pretty good if they're on. I think they will be. Texas is just above average, and an injury or two away from being considerably below average. Pitt is a veritable unknown.
Alex: Miami is a superb outfit and I think has the ability to win this entire bracket. They've got a lot of the pieces of the puzzle, for sure, and I think one of the key ones is ball-handling skills. If they can catch and pass, they can go far.
Air Force should be the #2 team here, and in fact it wasn't that long ago I'd have said they should be #1. But they aren't quite there yet.
That leaves them open to be upset. Texas needs some strength up front and a little more pace out wide. What they have right now to rely on is teamwork, which gets you far, but not without the athleticism. I like Pittsburgh. They are part of a resurgence of 7s in the area, and they could well take 2nd.
CONFERENCE 1 POOL D
Alex: I think if there is one pool that doesn't have a clear leader, it's Conference 1, Pool D.
SD State has been brilliant at times, but they've graduated some of those brilliant players, and while they have some excellent coaching, I think they are ripe to be upended.
I like Western Washington. They play a good team game ... and have a couple of guys capable of finishing. They didn't so much under-perform at Nationals as fade late, and they will need to get that good early result to stay focused.
Pat: This pool appears to be a two-horse race. If I hadn't seen Western Washington play very, very well in College Station in December, I would say it's a three-horse race for second. But, WWU can beat San Diego State. I'd be surprised if Denver or New Mexico State could. Then again, they're both teams with nothing to play for in the spring 15s season, and who knows, maybe they've been practicing 7s and recruiting for 7s for the last three months? That said, I have to think the Aztecs, with more time under Matt Hawkins, will win.
CONFERENCE 2 POOL A
Pat: Just as Life is, Central Washington is a shoe-in to win Pool A. I actually wonder if their easy pool will factor in in the cup rounds. The Wildcats are way too good for any of these teams. Indiana is a really good 15s program, but this will be their first foray into a serious 7s environment, and I think we've seen over the last couple of years, it takes more than talent to be good at 7s. I am looking forward to seeing IU's Kyle Stroman play 7s, though.
Alex: I liked Yale last year at the CRC Qualifier. I thought they played with a lot of tenacity. Won't be enough to take on CWU, which is as comfortable playing 7s as any college in the country. Doesn't mean they are always perfect, but as we mentioned in RUGBYMag before, they are more experienced at a high level than any other college program.
Weber State has potential, depending on their personnel ... they certainly have nothing to lose. I think, Pat, you're right that CWU has to watch getting complacent coming out of this pool.
CONFERENCE 2 POOL B
Alex: Conference 2 Pool B has perhaps the most intriguing matchup of pool play. Utah and Don Pati, Aj Tuinau and the Lauti brothers against JP Eloff, Lance Cavanaugh, Ryan Hargraves and Davenport.
Wow, that will be a terrific contest. Davenport didn't play 7s well in their one foray this fall, but you've got to give that if they entered this tournament, they entered to win it. That's the game to circle.
Don't mean to ignore Regis or Southern Illinois but ... you know ...
Pat: You're absolutely right about the Davenport and Utah game. That means get to bed early on Thursday, because it's at 8am Friday, the first game of the day. That time could even be a factor. For Davenport, that will feel like 10am, not 8am.
Davenport has a really mobile, fast, skilled team. And I believe wholedeartedly they're going to get better with every match and play really good 7s in Las Vegas. JP Eloff and Don Pati are the two best college 7s players in America, by my estimation, and that includes Peter Tiberio. But, because Utah has more experience in pressure-packed 7s matches, I will give them the edge. Plus, you just never know when Thretton Palamo will pop his head out of a helmet.
CONFERENCE 2 POOL C
Pat: Pool C I find really intriguing. Georgia has Will Farrell. He's good. Georgia could be good. Stanford is well coached. Marcus Henderson is a really talented runner for Stanford. And guess what, Johnson Bademosi's college football career is over. Not saying I think he'll play for Matt Sherman, but crazier things have happened. Cal Poly has to be my pick, because Landis Nasser leads a great group of talented, well-coached players, but I think a dark horse could emerge.
Alex: Don't forget Cal Poly almost beat Life at the USA Rugby nationals...I think the Mustangs have the depth and the fitness to win this pool. Stanford is such a question-mark at present that I can't be definite about them.
CONFERENCE 2 POOL D
Alex: In Pool D, technically Stony Brook is the top seed, but I don't think they will be after Friday morning. I like UCLA, because I like their coach and I think their depth and athleticism is better now than it was a year ago, even with the loss of Dave Martini. Longwood is not a bad side at all, and Brown is probably better at 7s than 15s.
This pool doesn't have the best team in it, but it has four really solid teams. Any one could win, really, but I say UCLA will win it, and Stony Brook, while suffiently able to take 1st, will have to work to be 2nd.
Pat: I'll disagree a little bit. I think Stony Brook is the best team in this group. Michael St. Clair is really fast. Like, Ricky Bobby pre-crash fast. And he's surrounded by some really hard workers and hard hitters. And the Seawolves are coached by Jerry Mirro, a 7s old head. I think he played for Atlantis before it got lost in the ocean. UCLA is the definitive No. 2 for me, as I just don't think Brown or Longwood will have the pace or depth to reach the quarterfinals.
Alex: I think the only main point of contention for us is whether UCLA beats out Stony Brook. Regardless, it's hard to see either beating Central Wahsington
Central's tougher game will be in the quarters. Same goes for the Conf 1 Pool D team. San Diego State and Western Washington matching up with Miami and Air Force or someone else. Kind of a pick'em group, although I see Aztecs and Miami, most likEly, getting through.
Pat: Agree on both assessments.
I could also see UCLA or Stony Brook beating their counterparts from Pool C in the quarters. But, I think we can both agree neither Life nor Kutztown are losing in the quarterfinals.
Alex: So that leaves us with the semis we outlined (Life v SDUSU, KU v Miami and
CWU v Stony Brook, Utah v Cal Poly) with the caveat that Davenport could get through over CWU.
Remember, these are the conference quarterfinals and semifinals we're talking about.
So now in Conference 1 ... Life over SD State, and Kutztown over Miami (?). I think that second one could be a barnburner
Pat: Life is better than San Diego State at probably every position, except for hooker. I would give Jaime Kelm the nod over Glen Maricelli. Still, he's not good enough to overcome the other areas where Life has an advantage.
Miami versus Kutztown will be an epic battle. Both teams are a step slow, but make up for it with sheer will. Both have some strong tacklers, and this could be a battle of attrition -- whose bodies held up over the first four games? For that reason, I don't see either beating Life in the Conference One final. They'll be too beat up.
Alex: Think also that these conference semis are being played Saturday morning, with the conference final at noon. It will be tough for anyone with a really challenging semi.
Pat: Definitely. I will, though, pick Miami where you picked Kutztown.
Alex: On the other side, if Central makes it to the semis, they make it to the conference final. I think they are have the depth and the power to play well even with a tough bracket.
Pat: Conference two is much more of a toss up. I think Cal Poly, Utah, Davenport and Central are all really great, all with the ability to beat one another.
Alex: Really I think it's Utah ... they roll through Cal Poly and run into Central, and that was a close game in June and will be a close game this time aorund. Think about the fact we've got CWU v Utah and Life v Kutztown (or Miami), and we're not even at the final yet!
Pat: I agree. I think Central is a lot more dependent on two really great players this year than they were last year -- Patrick Blair and Tim Stanfill. Kellen Moore is gone, and he drew a lot of attention. Utah is deeper, so I will take the Utes to win the conference.
However, I think Davenport is really deep, and if they get to the conference final, I pick them to advance. Unless, of course, Palamo crashes the party.
Put the name Mason Baum in your memory bank. He's really good for DU.
Alex: I think that's a lot of faith in a Davenport team that, while impressive, has not shown results in 7s
Pat: Right. I think if they get to the Conference final, they'll have proven they are very good at the abbreviated game. If they do that, I think their depth is better than anyone else's.
Alex: I say Life makes the final, and I say Utah makes the final ... just. Your points about Central Washington are good. The Utah that beat Cal and CWU last June is essentially intact. So I think that gives us Life v. Utah. You want to pick?
Pat: If Utah has Thretton Palamo, I pick the Utes. If they don't, I pick Life. I hate to put the balance of my pick on a player who has played so little rugby the last year, but he is that big a difference maker. Life won the National title without Cam Dolan, who should be a pretty darn big difference maker in Vegas. And if Utah doesn't have someone as equally imposing to counter with, I think Life will be too much.
Alex: I love the Life team, and I think they've got a lot to offer, but I think Utah has four game-breakers, maybe seven ... players who can create tries out of nothing. I say it's close, but Utah.