Pool A is home to defending National Champion Arkansas State. Ranked #1 by RUGBYMag, the Red Wolves are 13-0 in 7s this fall, with wins over fellow tournament teams Middle Tennessee State (#20), Life (#4), North Texas (#22), Oklahoma (#13), Lindenwood (#11) and Davenport (#12). They’re accompanied by #25 Florida (which finished second in the Southeastern Championship), North Texas (runners-up in the Southwest Championship) and Oregon State (third-place at PAC 7s, second at the Northwest Championship, and ranked 16th) in Pool A.
Arkansas State has to be considered the favorite to win this pool. The Red Wolves are incredibly talented and incredibly deep. (More on a new development in their depth in a bit.) The order of the rest of the group is a little more of a tossup. North Texas has actually beaten Texas twice this fall and they’ve fully committed to 7s. Oregon State has played more 7s than either the Mean Green or Gators, but Florida has more high stakes experience with the CRC. Oregon State gets the nod to finish second, Florida to finish third and North Texas fourth.
Players to watch: Dylan Carrion, Dale Bates and Shaun Potgieter.
In saying just these three, we leave out a lot. Tom Haussrer is playing well, Gavin Brown is a former High School 7s All American and very fast, Zinzan Elan-Puttick is one of the best 7s halfbacks in America and Harry Higgins is a big, physical forward. There are more names, too.
Carrion is the engine for ASU’s attack. He is as experienced a 7s player as there is in the college game, having been playing on a top senior club 7s circuit since high school. He is very elusive, strong for his size…and elusive. Dale Bates, according to coach Matt Huckaby, is primed for a breakout. He’s long been one of the more physically gifted Red Wolves, but now the mental part of the game is catching up.
Potgieter is the best collegiate 7s forward in America when he’s healthy, which he hasn’t been all season. He has literally not played a minute this fall and was just cleared to play this week. If he’s healthy and fit enough, he will make a huge impact.
Q&A with coach Matt Huckaby:
Q: You and North Texas are the only teams who meet in pool play that also met this fall. What do you remember about the Mean Green?
A: Hard runners. Good tacklers. They’re an athletic team. I think maybe our score didn’t really flatter how good that team was having drawn them on the first game of the day. I think the ball just bounced our way, but they’re a good team.
Q: You haven’t lost a game all fall and you’re the defending champs. Last weekend you beat Lindenwood, Davenport and Oklahoma in a round-robin. Those are three highly regarded teams. Do you have to worry about overconfidence or complacency?
A: I’m encouraged because the boys were a little off [last weekend] but they still figured out how to win. That’s a good sign. They’re ready to put in two full days of work. They’re excited to play. Definitely not overconfident. We’re a humble team this year, but they’re going to every game excited to play the game. As a coach you want to see that. You don’t want to see them apprehensive for a big game. When we played Life, Lindenwood and Davenport, they’re actually looking forward to those games. They want to test themselves, play hard and measure themselves.
Q: How will you manage Potgieter’s return?
A: Fitness is always an issue if you’ve been out all 7s season. But there’s places to use Shaun for sure, whether he’s starting or coming in. Shaun, he’s very aware of his capabilities, that’s why I don’t hesitate to find him a role if he gives me the thumbs up.
NORTH TEXAS - STEVEN DAVIDSON
Players to watch: Austin Becker, Mark Capra, Steven Davidson.
Becker and Capra are new to the team. Becker is a transfer from Midwestern State in Wichita Falls and plays halfback, and Capra, a forward, is a transfer from the United States Coast Guard Academy. Davidson is an Army veteran who played this summer with the All Army 7s team at the Serevi RugbyTown Sevens.
Q&A with captain Steven Davidson:
Q: Have you parlayed your experience with the All Army team into assisting the 7s team at North Texas?
A: I took diligent notes anywhere I was with the Army and when I came back to the University of North Texas I got together with all of the 7s players who had been significantly disappointed the season prior and sat them all down and talked about where we wanted to be this year. They all bought into the system that I was going to try to implement. The coaching staff all bought into it and we essentially replicated the All Army program with the weight training, the cardio training with the game system at the University of North Texas and we’ve just seen significant results.
Q: You got to go up against Arkansas State, Lindenwood and Texas at a tournament in Norman this year. What did you guys learn from that experience?
A: We showed up to Norman unbelievably unprepared to be there. We had had a couple of weeks off since the championship, lost a little bit of focus…We got kind of rolled on a little bit, but what it did was it showed us areas we needed to improve on. Our biggest things against them was their passes were perfect and they always at the breakdown quicker. We have spent the last month working on our weaknesses, so it was great. It was an incredible opportunity firsthand to see our weaknesses.
OREGON STATE – ANTHONY LALLY
Players to watch: Colter Rodman, Sean McFadden and Pono Haitsuka (maybe).
Haitsuka is contracted with the USA National 7s team, but also still collegiate eligible. He’s played one tourney with the Beavers this fall, and could conceivably make it to Greensboro, but it’s still very much up in the air. Coach Anthony Lally is prepping his team as if Haitsuka won’t be on it. If he is, the Beavers become exponentially tougher. Rodman is a 15s fullback, but he’s played all over OSU’s backline. He can lift the tempo. McFadden is a back row forward in 15s and is a pest in contact and a ball winner in 7s.
Q&A with coach Anthony Lally:
Q: Gotta ask about Pono.
A: Everybody’s asking us about Pono, and he’s a very exciting player, and he’s only played with us once this sason, which makes the effort that we put in at UCLA [Pac 7s] and our improvement curve through the fall even more satisfying.
Q: Do you feel like you can compete with the teams at Nationals?
A: We wouldn’t be going on the trip if we weren’t preparing. It’s about the first game and it’s about pool play and day one. It’s about stringing together three good performances and putting yourself in the best possible opportunity for a quarterfinal berth. For us, the players proved to themselves that they can put a couple of good performances together over a tournament against some well organized opposition and come out on top.
Q: Your first tournament performance this fall was less than stellar. Then you go and finish second, respectively, at a pair of good tournaments. Have you improved over the season?
A: The whole tide of the group has risen. In those top 12 players or so, the belief and the camaraderie and the execution level across the group has just continually improved over the season.
FLORIDA – KEN SIMMONS
Players to watch: Lucas Baistrocchi, Kyle Burnett, Ryan Gilbert.
Lucas Baistrocchi, an Italian born and trained player, is one of the Gators’ vets. He’s not exceptionally quick or explosive, but his foot is handy in the set pieces, he’s a solid tackler with well above average skills and poise. Ryan Gilbert is a third-year leader and the team captain, and Kyle Burnett is a promising freshman from Tennessee. Paul Rice, a would-be burner, was injured in the conference tournament.
Q&A with coach Ken Simmons:
Q: How has the fall gone for you? You’ve played one lead-up tournament against inferior competition, one tougher warm-up in which you finished 2-1 and the SCRC, in which you lost to Auburn in the final.
A: I feel like we’ve played better each game, which is what our goal was. We played well in the SCRC until Auburn. They played more structured than any other team that day. We were winning by eight points with just a minute or two left, and it wasn’t enough.
Q: Having played in front of national audiences at the CRC, your guys should be used to high pressure situations and really top notch competition. How do you feel about this team’s chances this weekend?
A: We feel like we can compete with anybody on any given day. Of course, Arkansas State, that’s a challenge in itself. In the CRC we probably played our best game against Life and kept them to a reasonable game. So we’ll see.