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With three dynamite clubs and an upstart newcomer, Pool D is up for grabs at the 2017 USA Rugby Emirates Airline Men's Club 7s National Championship in Minneapolis, Minn. this weekend. The Chicago Lions and the Life West Gladiators each won their conferences and are coming into the tournament as the #4 and #6 teams overall, respectively. The Santa Monica Dolphins fought off OMBAC to secure the #2 seed in the Pacific South while Optimus, an elite side from the Atlanta, Ga. area, beat out the Miami for the last spot in the South.

Chicago Lions (Midwest #1, #4 Overall)

After an initial hiccup in the first Midwest Conference qualifier, the Chicago Lions cemented their place at Nationals winning the next three events including the Midwest Championship over Metropolis in July. 2017 will be the tenth straight postseason appearance for the Lions and the 15th overall. After finishing in fourth place last summer and coming off a successful Final Four campaign in 15s, the Lions will be looking to roar in Minneapolis.

Chicago is peaking at the right time and attributes that to its great depth and balance. Head coach David Fee has his squad in the right mindset for a deep run at Nationals. “We have to outwork our opposition.  The teams at the top – Rugby Utah, Life West, Old Blue, Denver, WAC, and Belmont Shore - there's some real talent out there, Olympians.  Make a mistake at this level, and they will be costly.  So ultimately, we need to work and then work some more.”

That willingness to do the work and incredible depth will prove most valuable this weekend. Chicago definitely has the horses, or Lions, to challenge the top teams in the competition. Eagle JP Eloff and OTC resident Mike Zeigler anchor the squad and a contingent of young collegiate talent have come in the round out the team. CRC-tested athletes like Alex Dorrier (Indiana), Jake Hidalgo (Indiana), Tyler Sousley (Indiana), Nick Feakes (Lindenwood), and Brady Gent (Davenport) bring experience playing in high-pressure tournaments. Bench players Tom Kacor and Luke Thiem could easily start on other teams and captain Matt Wagner and Eddie Bluemel are key pieces to the puzzle.

It won’t be a cakewalk for Chicago into the cup rounds on Sunday and Fee will have his boys ready. “Santa Monica knocked off some great teams in Belmont Shore, OMBAC, etc., and we know that their coach, Riaz Fredericks, has them playing well.  Optimus is new team, but has a ton of athletes out of the Atlanta area.  Life West won a tough Pacific North so to come away as the # 1 seed from that region, we know they'll be tough.  Adriaan Ferris is a great coach and know they have top level talent.  Zach Bonte has a great motor, and we know him well from his UCLA days.”

Coach Fee knows he has only seen the tip of what the Lions can do. “Like anything, the more we can play together, the more they understand each other, the better we get which I think we caught a glimpse of in the Midwest Final. We won convincingly and gained some confidence, but know the competition will be much fiercer [at Nationals]. We know we have to lift our game even more to compete. We'll have our work cut out for us, but if we put in the work, we'll get that chance.”

Chicago Lions Projected Roster

  • JP Eloff
  • Mike Ziegler
  • Tyler Sousley
  • Nick Feakes
  • Alex Dorrier
  • Jake Hidalgo
  • Brady Gent
  • Matt Wagner
  • Luke Theim
  • Tom Kacor
  • Eddie Bluemel
  • Jordan Highberger

Life West (Pacific North #1, #6 Overall)

Life West were kings of NorCal this summer and when it came time to face the undefeated Washington Athletic Club, a team full of players from the Seattle Saracens, in the Pacific North Championship, the Gladiators upset the favorites, 19-14, to take the top seed in the conference. Life West returns to Nationals for the second time and are in better position this summer than it was in 2014.

Life West may be young and inexperienced, but the team bond is strong and will concentrate on not over complicating the simple things. “We are not a team of stars and have a lot of no names on the team,” head coach Adriaan Ferris said. “We just try to play for each other and share the workload both on attack and defense. [To advance to the cup rounds, Life West will have to] remain composed under pressure and continue to believe in themselves and their ability.”

Co-captains Devereaux Ferris and Zach Bonte lead the way for Life West much like the way they did for the San Francisco Rush and UCLA Bruins. Fellow Rush teammate Martini Talapusi joined Ferris in Hayward, but it is Eagle Naima Fualaau who has been most impressive this summer. “Naima is in his second season with us and I still haven’t seen him smile. He brings a lot of seriousness to training because he never smiles, which can be construed as he is not having fun but I am assured by the boys that is having a whale of a time.”

As for their competition, the Gladiators will take one game at a time. “We know the pool favorites, the Chicago Lions, are a quality side who have a ton of experience at Club Nationals and they have been impressive all summer,” Ferris added. “Their roster runs deep with quality players and they have players on the club that can hurt teams. Santa Monica came out of a tough SoCal region and works really hard for each other with speed and athleticism. I don’t know a lot about Optimus and unknown is always dangerous.”

Life West Gladiators Projected Roster

  • Devereaux Ferris
  • Martini Talapusi
  • Tesimoni Tongauiha 
  • Zach Bonte
  • Naima Fualaau
  • Calvin Nell
  • Tyler Harrison
  • Eminoni Mafi
  • Greg Reyes
  • Zack Tannous
  • Tala Talapusi
  • Tyler Hutcherson
  • Andre Bola
  • Guillaume Cazenave
  • Tookey Stevenson

Santa Monica (Pacific South #2, #10 Overall)

After enduring an up and down summer, the Santa Monica Dolphins advanced to their third consecutive National Championships with a definitive victory at their own Santa Monica 7s.  Head coach Riaz Fredericks rallied his troops after a slew of early season disappointments to surge in the final Pacific South event. “The squad worked hard and dug deep to beat Belmont twice at our home tournament where we won our first tournament of the summer. We’ve spent the last few weeks picking up the tempo and working hard at training. We’re working to capitalize on our good work and take that energy with us into Nationals.”

Coach Fredericks described his squad as a young dynamic squad with a healthy mix of experienced and young-blood 7s players. Former Eagle Pago Haini leads the squad on the pitch bringing his wealth of experience to the team. Fredericks has preached using defense as offense to create a great foundation to improve its attacking plays from. “Our organized and aggressive defense will help us to control games and gain the advantage of our opposition,” Fredericks stated.

The Dolphins will have to play out of their skins to advance to the cup rounds on Sunday. “We can't afford to take any of these teams lightly and we’ll need to be at our best every time we take the field,” Fredericks concluded.

Santa Monica Dolphins Projected Roster

  • Allen Corruth
  • Pago Haini
  • Harold Hernandez
  • Iain Herriot
  • Dylan James
  • Joey Krassenstein
  • Kevin Kucinskas
  • Matt Pollen
  • Jordan Robertson
  • Edward Tandy
  • Victor Woo
  • Seve Woods
  • Zac Winter

Optimus Rugby (South #2, #15 Overall)

“We got to Nationals due to pure grit,” head coach Ronn Omondi said describing the journey Optimus Rugby has endured on the road to the postseason. Comprised of mostly players from the Atlanta Old White and across the South, Optimus Rugby was formed as an elite level 7s team in an attempt to give those players an opportunity to showcase their skills. In the side’s first year, Optimus qualified for Nationals by coming back from a 14-0 deficit against Miami in the South Championship semifinal to win 19-14.

For its first visit to Nationals, Optimus will not look past its first opponent and take it one game at a time. Using team defense and raw speed as its foundation, Omondi hopes the squad’s never say die attitude will turn into wins this weekend. Elijah Fluker and Jonathan Poole are the demons on offense while Austin Grant, Eugene Elliot, and Rashaad Moore wreak havoc on defense.

Optimus Rugby Projected Roster 

  • Austin Grant 
  • Rashaad Moore 
  • Eugene Elliot 
  • Elijah Fluker 
  • Nathan Rogers 
  • Drew Moyes 
  • Drew Sanders 
  • Jonathan Poole 
  • Jamie Gasparella 
  • Yousef Ali
  • Ken Kungania 
  • Bryan Williams