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With Mid-Atlantic qualifiers set to kick off this coming Saturday in Northern Va., two teams look to be the early favorites: the newly-formed Beltway Elite 7s and defending MAC 7s Champions, Schuylkill River.
Both teams have a preseason tournament championship under its respective belts. In each team’s first tournament of the summer, the Lehigh Valley 7s, Beltway edged Schuylkill River by the slimmest of margins, 15-14 to secure the LV Cup. The teams went their separate ways in the second tuneups on June 17th. Schuylkill River ran past its North Penn 7s competition, earning the Cup via a 40-0 victory over previously-undefeated Old Gaelic.
Beltway similarly had its way with the opposition on the way to a championship showdown with Slug 7s tournament hosts, Rocky Gorge. Beltway Elite ran up a combined score of 87-0 over Washington RFC and Washington Irish. Both teams are entered in NOVA and will be seeking vengeance at Ruggerama 7s.
Rocky Gorge presented a different test for the boys from Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Similar to its win over Schuylkill River the week before, Beltway dug itself a hole heading into halftime. Some jitters and handling errors handed Gorge a 14-7 lead at the break. But just as he did at Lehigh, prop Dave Hightower put on the cape and scored two second half tries to lead Beltway to the win.
“When we’re playing our gameplan and guys aren’t trying to do too much, we’re a pretty dangerous squad,” said Beltway head coach Jon Grasso. “In both championship matches, we got ourselves into trouble early. It was pretty obvious we were eager to take it to the defending MAC champs, and then the tournament hosts. The intent is admirable, but we’ll need to keep our patience all the way through the ends of these tournaments if we want to accomplish our goals.”
Schuylkill River found little opposition at North Penn 7s, giving up only five points on the day. The Schuylkill run culminated in a 40-0 win over Gaelic in the championship. Looking forward to rematches with Beltway, and facing the likes of Rocky Gorge and Norfolk, Schuylkill coach Chris Ryan had a simple edict. “Play more and better sevens. When we play actual sevens, we’re pretty good. But when we get drawn into playing 15s, or smash mouth, or get out of our style, we suffer greatly. We have to do things traditionally to make things happen.”
The biggest competition for the preseason winners will likely be Rocky Gorge and NOVA. After back-to-back DI MAC championships in 15s, Gorge recruited hard to get its sevens team up to its 15s standards. A lot of college talent from Kutztown, West Virginia, and Salisbury has been brought aboard to supplement Gorge veterans Nick Kuhl and Will Miller, both also of the Capital Selects. Rocky Gorge finished just outside of the second and final spot to represent the MAC at USA Club Sevens Nationals in 2016 and figures to make noise this summer.
After a lengthy postseason 15s run and the recent CRCs tournament for many of the new college players, Gorge coach Chuck Moore pointed to team chemistry as the key that will put his squad over the hump versus teams like Beltway, NOVA, and Schuylkill. “[Slug 7s] was the first time some of the guys even met each other. So really, it’s just more time together. The systems are there, we know they work. We just have to get the the guys working together as a team. On paper, I think we have a really good team. I think we can win one or two qualifiers, be competing for one of the two [Nationals] spots. The goal is to make Nationals and make an impact, not show up and just be a participant.”
NOVA enters the season as a bit of a wild card. This Saturday’s qualifier hosts turned a lot of heads last summer by capturing the Bowl at Nationals. But gone are coach Toshi Palamo, veteran PJ Komongnan, and the speedy ConRoy Smith, formerly of the USA Falcons and Olympic Training Center. NOVA is certainly a team that cannot be discounted. It has not entered any preseason tournaments, but that is by design, as it deployed a similar strategy last summer.
“We have a lot of core guys coming back from last year’s team,” said NOVA coach Joey Tropea. “We also have a couple of new additions we’re looking forward to [see play], as well as some young guys from different colleges in the area. We’re excited about this first qualifier and getting the boys on the field. It’s Nationals or bust for us, and we want to do better than last year, better than the Bowl.”
Also capable of making a run are two of the DI MAC 15s semifinalists, Norfolk and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh won its preseason tournament in West Virginia, but with few recognizable teams entered, it’s tough to predict what kind of test was there for the Harlequins. Norfolk has not entered any preseason tournaments, but have had live scrimmages on Thursday trainings since May.
“We are a young team and only return about five or six players from the core of last summer’s Qualifier team,” said Norfolk coach Darin Darden. “The goal is to finish in the top two of the MAC, qualify for Nationals, and take it one match at a time when we get there. I expect to see improvement every week and be that team that other sevens clubs do not enjoy playing against.”
With the emergence of the Beltway Elite, NOVA’s 2016 Bowl run, the hard recruitment from Rocky Gorge, and the steady play of Schuylkill, the competition in the MAC should be as fierce as ever. Whomever emerges from the conference will be better prepared to make a run at Nationals and bring home some hardware than in recent years.
- Schuylkill River: The defending champs have to be considered the favorites until they are dethroned in a qualifier, at least. Led by veterans Pat Boyle, Randy Helsman, and former collegiate All-Americans Bruce Dolan and Gareth Jones, Schuylkill seeks to earn its seventh straight appearance at USA Club 7s Nationals. The addition of a U-23 program has given the team a steady influx of young talent, including former CRC competitors from Temple and Penn State.
- Beltway Elite Sevens: This newly-formed team is nipping at Schuylkil’s heels. Beltway is led by Chris Saint (Potomac Exiles, the now-defunct PRO Rugby’s Sacramento Express) John Murray (Glendale Raptors, Stars Rugby) Tyler Barberi (Baltimore-Chesapeake, Capital Selects) and Will Taylor (American University, Mystic River). Anything less than a birth at Nationals would be a major disappointment for this talented squad.
- NOVA: Last year’s National Bowl winners return veterans Adam Henderson and Gareth Willat and will add some young local talent. Expectations are high for this squad.
- Rocky Gorge: Defeated Beltway’s second side and gave the first side all it could handle in Slug 7s championship. We will see if the recruitment effort for the sevens program pays off.
- Norfolk Blues: Its physical brand of rugby always makes Norfolk a threat. Often sees itself just outside of Nationals looking in, with numerous third and fourth-place finishes.
- Pittsburgh Harlequins: Led by Luke Titus and similar to Norfolk in its physical style, Pittsburgh will look to build off of last weekend’s preseason win.
- Washington RFC: Definitely has the talent to pull some upsets. Washington hopes to rebound after its disappointing effort at Slug 7s.
- Washington Irish: Another team building up its sevens program as a precursor to the promotion of its 15s team to DI. Rebounded from its loss to Beltway One to defeat Beltway Two for third place at Slug 7s.
- Southern Pines: Will look to play the spoiler. Southern Pines will compete at NOVA out of conference, and cannot earn qualifier points.
*Rankings based on teams that are known to have entered the NOVA Ruggerama Premier Side as of this writing.
Alexander is a beat reporter for Rugby Today, published author, freelance sports writer and club rugby player for the Potomac Exiles. For more rugby action and his sports takes, follow him on Twitter @alexanderdiegel.