Two heavyweights and two relative unknowns make up Pool D. Central Washington and Davenport are the heavyweights. CWU has been on the cusp of winning the National Championship before, losing to Life in the final in 2011. The Wildcats won the Northwest Championship to qualify for Nationals. Davenport hasn’t had as much success in 7s, but is a two-time 15s National Champ with 7s All Americans all over the roster. The Panthers are an at-large selection, having shown well in two friendly tournaments against good competition. San Jose State finished fifth in one California tournament and won the Pacific Western Championship to garner a berth. Auburn won the Southeastern Championship.
Central Washington is the obvious pick. The Wildcats have serious 7s chops, with All American coach Tony Pacheco at the helm and the likes of Tanner Barnes, Max Narewski and Aladdin Schirmer on the field. But if you consider Davenport’s competition this fall and the pedigree of some of its guys, the Panthers will threaten to win this pool. Auburn played more proven 7s competition than San Jose State to get to Greensboro, so I’ll pick the Tigers to finish third and the Spartans to finish at the bottom of the pool. Predicted order of finish: 1. Central Washington 2. Davenport 3. Auburn 4. San Jose State.
Players to watch: Max Narewski, Tanner Barnes and Aladdin Schirmer. Barnes should be on the short list of best college 7s players in the country. He’s a 7s All American, as is Narewski, and a very dependable player. He’s nails on defense and can sting in attack, too. Schirmer is also an electric ball carrier. Narewski is a more slippery operator with exceptional ball skills. He’s one of the best halfbacks in the tournament. CWU did lose an important piece of the puzzle, Andrew Nelson, to injury recently.
Q&A with coach Tony Pacheco:
Q: You’ve coached a number of Davenport players in your role as the All American coach. What do you think of the Panthers?
A: They’ve got to be considered one of the favorites for this tournament. They’ve got a lot of talent and they’ve got some accomplished players over there. JP [Eloff] is as complete a player as there is in the college game. They’ve got some good skilled and athletic players in Mason [Baum] and some of those other guys. That’s going to be a challenge when we play them, that’s for sure.
Q: When you kick off this weekend, it will have been over a month since you last played in a 7s tournament. How have you dealt with the layoff?
A: It’s not the ideal buildup. I think it’s probably something everybody’s dealing with, though. There haven’t been a lot of tournaments the last few weeks. It’s just the nature of the way things are…It is what it is and we move forward and use the last few weeks to get as prepared as we could.
Q: What have you been doing in preparation?
A: A lot of fitness. Two day tournament, that’s going to be tested, that’s for sure, when you’ve got to play schools like Davenport. That’s been a big piece the last few weeks.
Players to watch: JP Eloff, Mason Baum, Mike Houston. Eloff is a multi-year 7s All American and one of the best and well-known commodities in the country. He took the summer off to rest after playing rugby non-stop for over a year, so he’s not been playing too much 7s lately. But that won’t slow him down. Mason Baum is a match-up problem for opponents. He’s bigger than most people as fast as him and faster than most people as big as him. He played with the USA Falcons at Serevi RugbyTown 7s. Houston was a High School 7s All American, one of several on Davenport’s team. He’s a physical ball carrier.
Q&A with coach Kruger Van Biljon:
Q: You came right off 15s for both of your 7s tournaments this fall and did relatively well, finishing second at the Notre Dame Invitational and in the four-team round robin at Arkansas State last week. Are you happy with how you showed at ASU?
A: We’re happy with the performance they put in for three days of work, because you’re obviously still in that 15s mindset. It’s not that easy to swing, especially against Arkansas State even though we lost by 20-odd points. It took us like three games to start playing our structures, and if you look at the first half against Arkansas State, we held them…The first game we moved the ball good from side to side, our defense was pretty good, and the halftime score was 14-7 in their favor. In the second half we missed some tackles, but we still defended well. It’s little mistakes we did fix into the lead up to Nationals now.
Q: Freshman Sondai Adjei is an intriguing talent. Before landing on campus, he’d played in Club 7s Nationals with the Chicago Lions, at the Serevi RugbyTown Sevens with the USA Falcons and for the High School 7s All Americans. Where does he fit in the lineup?
A: Sonny is starting for us at No. 9. Sonny’s got a lot of potential, but there’s things we’re going to need to fix with him. He knows what he does wrong and he knows how to fix them, but sometimes it’s not that easy to get it out of your system if you haven’t done it that long. But he can make an impact. He’s one of those guys that can turn a game upside down if you need it, so that’s good to have him on the starting line.
Players to watch: JB Easterling, Ben Winiarcyzk. Both are smart, shifty players who have scored clutch tries for the Tigers this fall. They both made the first-team All SCRC 7s team. Winiarcyzk has played with Atlanta Old White 7s previously.
Q&A with club president Nick Magnella:
Q: Auburn hasn’t made much of a splash in 7s until this fall. What’s been the difference?
A: Ever since the end of the spring semester, our goal was we were working toward the SEC Championship. We spent all summer practicing, playing together, getting used to each other, and once the fall semester started we practiced Mondays and Wednesdays and we had Tuesday and Thursday practices, too, and our goal the entire time was just to win the SEC. We were bummed last year because we had a chance but it slipped away. Also, about half the guys on this 7s team, this is their last year, and they wanted to go all out on a positive note.
Q: You’ve never played any of the teams in your pool. What do you expect?
A: We’ve never played these teams before, so really our thought is to keep playing our game and we know these teams are obviously just as good as us or better. So we have to be ready. We’ve always heard these West Coast and East Coast teams are really good and have these really good programs, so we know it’s going to be a dog fight, but we’re ready for it.
SAN JOSE STATE
Players to watch: Max Longanecker, Kevin Orme, Michael Cahil. Longanecker is the flyhalf. He’s a powerful tackler and can step into space when it’s shown to him. Orme usually lines up at center and has some gas, as does Cahil.
Q&A with coach James Fonda:
Q: You’ve got some well-known opponents in your pool, including guys who will make the US National Team some day. How does SJSU look at the challenge?
A: What we do is put out objectives and reach those objectives and that gets us closer to our goal. The guys know they have to raise their level of game every time they go out on that field. We’re not worried about if they have US Eagles.
Q: Have you guys been playing the underdog card in conversations and training in the lead up?
A: I won’t let anyone call us the underdog. Like I told my guys, we deserve to be there. Central Washington, they’re OK. They’re a good team – powerhouse 7s. We look forward to these challenges. We’re not going to back down. We are there and we deserve to be there and we’re going to play. Cinderella story? Maybe, but not the underdog.