Finally, A National Sevens Update

WWU Men’s Rugby National Sevens Team – 2012

I apologize for taking so long to get this update written and published…I’ll be quicker next time.

So, last Sunday, I’m driving from College Station, Texas, home to Texas A&M University and site of the USA Rugby Collegiate 7’s National Championships this past weekend, doing some ‘back country’ touring.  You know, where you’re in some damn interesting country, rural Texas, Brazos Valley, $3.09 per gallon gas, cowboys, the wild west, and, well, just Texas…and you promise yourself that you will avoid any freeway like roads.

I’m doing a pretty good job.  I headed east out of College Station on Texas 30, on my way to Huntsville, and the plan is to hook up with I-45 to Conroe, then I would catch Texas 105 to Cleveland and I-59.  I-59 is then a straight shot to Houston and the George Bush International Airport.

Well, just outside of Conroe a few miles is a town called “Cut and Shoot” (population 1,158), swear to God.  Now if that isn’t a classic Texas, wild west name that conjurs up all kinds of lawless, shot-em-up frontier images, I don’t know what is, so I’m excited.  I’m also hungry and it’s a little after one, so it’s lunchtime and, lo and behold, what appears out of the haze, scrub pine, and live oak, but a genuine b-b-que joint called Frank’s.  How could I not stop?

So I did, and ordered some pulled pork, potato salad, and a Lone Star long neck.  While I waited for my lunch, I started to reflect back on the events of the Collegiate National 7’s tournament in general, and Western’s fortunes in said tourney, specifically. 

The entrance to Penberthy Rec Center at Texas A&M University

Texas A&M’s Penberthy Recreation Center facility is second to none I’ve ever seen.  I counted eight full size fields, four with ‘field turf’ artificial surfaces and four real grass fields immediately adjacent to the Penberthy Fieldhouse.  There were several other fields in the surrounding area but we didn’t get a look at those.  I’m just guessin’ but it appears to me that the rec complex is larger in area than the whole of Western’s campus!  Ah, the wide open spaces…  The tournament was played on two adjoining grass fields and those fields were great.  Both held up really well for the 108 games that were played on them and they provided great, true surfaces with no ripples, ditches, or undulations all the way to the end.

USA Rugby’s organization and the Texas A&M Rec staff’s running of the tournament was first class.  The matches went off on time, the referees were reasonably competent and, more importantly, consistent, leaving the match outcomes to be determined by the teams…for the most part.  There was somebody always there, either USA Rugby or A&M staff, to answer your questions or point you in the right direction.

Texas A&M Trainer’s Tent…working on Gavri Grossman and Jake Romano

There was a trainer’s tent, with several of the Texas A&M training staff for taping and massaging as needed.  Right near the trainers tent, in the adjacent field, A&M had even set up separate tents/canopies, with a dozen folding chairs each, for each team (ours was between Virginia’s and Wisconsin’s) so teams could get out of the sun and relax between matches.  As it turned out we never used our canopy as our hotel was just minutes from the rec center, so, we drove back to the hotel to wait out the three hour break between matches.  Whoever hosts this event next year will have to go some to top this tournament.

The only complaint I had was the lack of internet access at the facility.  There were networks available in the area (tamuguest) that were accessible  but I guess we weren’t ‘guest’ enough to warrant access.  The hotel had “free wi-fi” but it was really slow at times.  I did hear lots of people complain about USA Rugby’s website and access to some of the webcast features but mostly the tournament was all good.

Western’s participation in this tournament did answer the one burning question we have had since the beginning of the summer:  Can Western play with the top programs in the country?  The answer is an unquestionable, hell yes!  We have the rugby skills and tactics to compete with anyone but we need to get a bit stronger, more time in the weight room, to compete with the best…as Coach Adam Robert’s told the team, “…we’re there!  You just have to believe in yourselves and your teammates…”.

We would have trouble with the likes Arkansas State (eventual tournament winner and National 7’s Champion), Delaware, Cal, Dartmouth, Central, and Texas A&M but we could hang with them and give them a good match.

Our first game of the day on Friday, against St, Mary’s (Gonzaga’s basketball nemesis) is a good example.  St, Mary’s was ranked 3rd in the polls most of the year and is a program that has lots of kids from all over the country that want to go there.  St. Mary’s 15’s team made it to the final four last year.

We kicked off to St. Mary’s and from the outset the game looked like it was going to be a pretty even contest.  St Mary’s scored first and converted for a 7-0 lead but Western worked hard and John Kaimmer picked off an errant St. Mary’s pass mid-way through the first-half and legged the 80 yards to the St. Mary’s goal line for Western’s first score, with two St. Mary’s players chasing but unable to catch the big guy.

And the game was on…  In the second half Quinton Willms snaked his way in for a try and converted. St. Mary’s scored and converted, and Western was down 14-12 with a few minutes to play.  Then Matt Jensen took in another score with a couple of minutes to go and it was Western leading 17-14.

Both teams looked to be affected by the heat (about 80) and the humidity (about 90%) but they struggled through.  The match went back and forth for the next minute or so and St. Mary’s got some incredible bounces, and was able to steal possession from Western with less than a minute to go, and work their way down the field and score in the corner with about 20 seconds to go.  The conversion was no good and at the final whistle, St. Mary’s survived for a 19-17 win.  But Coach Robert’s earlier statement was validated…we were there.

Next up was Texas A&M and their imposing side.  These guys were big, played aggressive defense, and on offense, liked to run into contact (take a tackle) and then get the ball out and continue on.  Western has played teams like this before and had few problems, but not this time.  A&M took Western apart 38-0 and as good as Western looked in the first match against St. Mary’s, they looked awful in this match.  It is hard to pinpoint what went on, why Western played so poorly after the brilliant match earlier, but Western were tentative in defense and against a side like A&M you can’t do that.

Western’s third match of the day was against Bowling Green University and everyone was nervous again as the Bowling Green side looked a lot like the Texas A&M side; A big team that likes to take the ball into contact and use their size to gain and advantage.  This time, though, Western would have none of it.  From the outset it was apparent that Western had come to play, and play they did.

Western controlled just about every phase of the game, keeping the ball away from the big breakdowns, backing out, giving ground, and restarting up-field when it looked like they were going to get trapped.  Classic seven’s play that makes the game such a joy to watch.

Bowling Green did score their first try on a fluke play.  Western were deep in their own end with Bowling Green applying pressure and moving towards the goal when Western was able to steal the ball back and get it to Quinton Willms who had no support.  Willms took the ball as far outside as he could and then just inside his 22 meter line, went for a clearing kick but mis-hit the ball and the line drive went right into his defender’s hands, who then walked into the goal for one of the weirdest trys of the tourney.

That mistake didn’t phase Western at all, however as they went on to win this match 19-14 and the score didn’t reflect how Western had controlled the game.

So the boys left Penberthy Rec Center after the first day knowing that they did belong, they could play, and wondering what could have been had they held off St. Mary’s in that first game.

After the first day’s competition all twenty-four teams were re-seeded base on record within their pool and point differential.  The first eight teams would go into the quarter-finals of the ‘Cup’ competition, the next eight would be matched in the quarters for the ‘Bowl’ division, and the last eight would square off in the ‘Plate’ division.

By virtue of their sometimes great performance of the first day, the Vikings would have the number 1 seed in the Plate division and would play an 8 am game against the University of Virginia.  So the day began earlier than the boys would have liked and they were playing another big, physical team.  They treated Virginia the same way they treated Bowling Green and beat the Cavaliers 15-5 on the strength of two trys by Matt Jensen and one by John Kaimmer.

Then, in an 11 am game, the Vikings were matched once again with Bowling Green, who had been re-seeded 4rd in the Plate bracket.  Bowling Green had played against the Air Force Academy in their early game and had beaten them 21-14.

So the game against Bowling Green started and it was all Western, all the time, the result was never in doubt.  The boys did pretty much anything they wanted against Bowling Green and came away with a 27-5 victory on two trys each by Gavri Grossman and Gio Trujillo and a fifth try by Robert Boenish.

Then it was on to the Plate Final at 3 pm against Davenport University who had beaten North Carolina State and Middlebury to get to the Plate Final.

Davenport is an NAIA school from Grand Rapids, MI, who had elevated rugby (along with lacrosse, ice hockey, and bowling) from ‘Club’ status to ‘Non-Varsity Sport’ status.  Davenport sees an opportunity to compete on a national level with the bigger NCAA schools in those sports, especially rugby.

Davenport came into the national tournament with high expectations but had lost to San Diego State, Delaware, and Lindenwood on the first day and were seeded 3rd in the Plate bracket.  Davenport then defeated North Carolina State and Middlebury (in overtime) on the 2nd day to make it to the Plate Final against Western.

Western had extra incentive going into the Plate Final in that this would be the last game played by Gavri Grossman in a Viking uniform.  Grossman graduates next week and will be moving on into the world where he’ll use his degree in molecular biology to get a research job.

Needless to say, the Western boys were sky high and eager to get a win for Gavri (and the other two seniors, Captain Matt Jensen and Robert Boenish) as a send off to a guy who has meant so much to the program and was an integral part in bringing the recent changes to the rugby program.

The game with Davenport was a ragged affair in the beginning and the bounces which had been going Western’s way the previous three games, weren’t going their way in this game, at least not at first.  The first action of the game was an indicator of things to come when John Kaimmer took a kick-off up the sideline and was able to elude two Davenport defenders and had clear sailing to the goal line…and the referee inexplicably blew his whistle.

The referee awarded a scrum to Western and in the subsequent action, Davenport’s JP Eloff (an All Tournament First Team selection) took the ball, made a break, and was off on a long scoring run for an early 7-0 Davenport lead.

Eloff scored again a couple of minutes later to make the score 12-0 but Western came back with a score by Quinton Willms to cut the lead to 12-7 and give Western some life.  The feeling was short lived as Davenport pounced on another Western mis-handle and scored again just as the half ended for a 17-7 lead.

The second half began with Western settling a bit and it didn’t take long for Matt Jensen to push across another try which Willms converted to cut Davenport’s lead to 17-14.  Davenport capitalized on another Western bobble, scooped the ball up and scored with a couple of minutes to go to make the score 22-14.

The Vikings only had a few minutes to go and were down two scores and knew they had to press and were having good success in moving the ball down the field but, with time fading, that man Eloff jumped on another opportunity and took the ball in again, for his third try of the game, as time expired.  The final score ended up 29-14 in Davenport’s favor.

All things considered, Western learned a lot of things at this event.  The Vikings had gone to the National tournament last year and didn’t really feel like they belonged.  This year was a different story.  With the changes that have been made to the rugby program, and the commitment of the 7’s team, with Gavri Grossman and Matt Jensen leading the way, Western knew they belonged at this tournament.

While the boys didn’t get that last win for Gavri or the team, and didn’t bring home any hardware ( a Plate!) they know that they and the entire program are on the right track.  With Coach Horne and Coach Roberts hitting the recruiting trail and securing commitments from some very good high school players, Western can, again, expect to be at Nationals next year.

And, oh yeah, I asked the guy behind the counter at Frank’s b-b-que about the name of the town, Cut and Shoot.  He said he really wasn’t sure but local legend has it that it was named after some dispute over where and how to build a church…or something like that.  He wasn’t sure how they got “Cut and Shoot” out of all that.  It’s a great place to visit, though, and the b-b-que is pretty good.