The Rocky Mountain West 7s tournament kicks off Saturday in Fort Collins, Colo., with Air Force, BYU, Colorado, Colorado State and Wyoming competing for an automatic bid to USA Rugby’s College 7s National Championships Nov. 23-24 in Greensboro, NC.
Air Force, BYU and Colorado State have all been active in 7s so far this fall, having competed at the Cougar Invitational in Provo, Utah last month. Air Force beat BYU to win the title, and the Rams finished third, having been bounced by the host Cougars in the semifinals. CSU went on another long road trip to compete in the West Coast 7s in San Luis Obispo, Calif. There they were less successful, finishing in the bottom half of the field.
“I’m excited about this Saturday, because there’s no traveling involved and I think guys can prepare themselves a lot better at home than away, which is something as a coach I need to work on,” said CSU coach Justin Mort.
“I expected to do a lot better than what we actually did. I’m not disappointed with the guys. They worked hard all year. I’m happy with the process, especially where we started and where we are right now. The program’s going forward for sure.”
Colorado State has been bitten by the injury bug this season, as several guys who played club 7s in the summer, like standout Ben Pinkelman, are either playing injured or out. Pinkelman helped the Denver Barbarians to a second-place finish at Club 7s Nationals in August.
No one can take anything away from Air Force’s performance this fall, in 7s or 15s. The Zoomies just trounced Colorado State 130-7 in 15s last weekend, and the title win down in Provo turned a lot of heads. Still, the shadow of finishing winless and tied for last place at Nationals in 2012 remains.
“I think as any athlete, you’ve kind of got to have a short memory, but still remember the things that sting you a bit,” said Air Force coach Joe Muehlbauer. “It’s really nothing I bring up, because it’s so obvious how well we were playing and what an egg we dropped down there in Texas…We really expected to do a lot better than we did last year, and hopefully that’s not going to happen again.”
Everyone knows Jack Bristol for Air Force. The 15s All American, with his notable height, sticks out of any crowd. He’s also quite mobile for his size and can create overloads by passing in contact. But Air Force’s most dangerous 7s player is the lesser known Eric Schreck, who plays center in 15s and didn’t suit up in the Provo tournament.
“He’s kind of a glider that’s also a stepper. He’s a gliding runner, but when he gets close to contact he steps people extremely well,” said Muehlbauer of Schreck.
“He’s a big body guy, so he’s really good in contact and a good defender. He’s very tough to defend…He offloads really well, so once he steps somebody and someone catches up to him, he’s strong enough to stay up in the tackle and pop the ball off to keep the play going.”
Just as Air Force can go a long way toward backing up the win in Provo with a solid performance Saturday, Colorado can heal wounds left from last season, when the Buffaloes failed to qualify for Nationals (but had to watch both CSU and Air Force move on) after not winning the Rocky Mountain event and being bounced from the PAC tournament by Utah.
“We’re actually bringing back a very experienced 7s team. I think for six of our 12-man roster, this will be their third consecutive year playing 7s for us, which is pretty good percentage-wise for a college team,” said Colorado coach Jim Snyder. “Those guys are hungry and they really are looking at last year, getting bounced by Utah, with a pretty big chip on their shoulder.”
Anchoring Colorado’s experienced group, which still has several holdovers from the team that won the PAC tournament two seasons ago, are Brian Garey, Brendan Cox and Sean Kilfoyle. Garey and Cox, along with CSU's Pinkelman, played big roles with the Denver Barbarians this summer.
And then there’s BYU, a team that commands respect regardless the code of rugby being played. While the Cougars don’t have an illustrious history of 7s tournament wins or triumphs, they’re still traveling to Fort Collins with a target on their back.
“With [BYU’s] somewhat lopsided recent history in 15s, I think our guys view 7s as a great equalizer, and for us, having seen Air Force beat them, means there’s blood in the water,” said Snyder. “7s is a game where everybody’s beatable on any given day or in any given match, and with this senior squad that we’ve got, we like our chances, both against them and against Air Force. The Air Force rivalry, our guys never let that one down.”
Wyoming and Colorado don’t have a lot of 7s under their belts this fall, though they did scrimmage each other few times recently, with the Buffs winning all three matches.