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Bender diving over. Ian Muir photo

A well-deserved offseason has come to an end, as the first high performance camp of the 2017/2018 season which leads directly into a competition is currently underway at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Mike Friday and company is shaking away the rust before the HSBC Sevens World Series kicks off in Dubai in December.

Before the circuit begins, though, the team will compete in the inaugural Silicon Valley 7s in San Jose, Nov. 4-5. It’s the first tournament of its kind on American soil, as 12 national teams, including seven of the top 10 in the world, will use the competition as a primer for the World Series.

“It will be great for us,” said Friday. “The time zone is fantastic for us. It’s competition – everybody’s coming. It’s invaluable in terms of getting real competitive game time a month out from Dubai. As an event, building the product and building the game in America, it’s fantastic.”

Last season got underway in the midst of a worldwide Olympic hangover – players stepped away after a full year of constant rugby, coaches needed a break, new players were blooded and the excitement tank was running low, with arguably the biggest moment in the history of 7s having just taken place. But with the World Cup, the first ever in the USA, looming a little over eight months and the length of the San Francisco Bay away, the Eagles are building to a climax yet again.

Most of the usual suspects are back, including a couple who’ve been on the shelf for some time. Carlin Isles tore his ACL midseason, missing the final six tournaments. He’s close to form again, with an outside shot at being healthy for Silicon Valley and a more realistic chance at Dubai.

Brett Thompson, also coming off a major injury, will take a full 12 months to return. That puts him closer to the USA’s home tournament in Las Vegas next March.

One of the guys who took time after Rio, Garrett Bender, is back. He’d become a stalwart under Friday, getting selected seemingly automatically from the 2014/2015 season through Rio. Then he took a sabbatical the entire '17/18 season.

“He’s rusty, but geez it was nice to have him back,” said Friday of Bender. “When I say rusty, he’s not really rusty – it’s just the high standards of where he was before he went away.”

His inclusion is a big deal for the Eagles, who struggled with depth in the forwards throughout last season. When Bender’s good, he’s an impact starter capable of turning a game on its head.

“I think people forget how young G is,” added Friday. “He’s got new experiences. He now realizes what it takes to do certain things, and he’s been able to deal with a few things he needed to deal with, and he’s come back in a far better place physically and mentally.”

Through the end of the year, Bender will compete remotely, coming in only for high performance camps and tournaments, assuming he’s selected. If it goes well, he’ll stay remote. Otherwise, there’s a chance Friday will pull him back in as a resident. Also dipping his toe as a remote player is captain Madison Hughes.

“These boys, you know, will do the physical stuff that needs to be done. Very different to some of the other boys where they only do it if you’re on them every day,” Friday said.

Though most of the regulars are back, we may see some new faces, too. Twice over the summer a camp or tryout of sorts was held in front of television cameras. First there was the United States Olympic Committee’s ‘Next Olympic Hopeful’, which unearthed Devin Short, 19-year-old forward with high school rugby experience who has the physical tools to make it. Then there was The Rugby Channel’s ‘Home Grown’, which told the story of an incubator camp which saw Short and several other collegiate and club stars vie for the coaching staff’s attention.

Coming out of the latter with a shot at playing for the USA are a few guys, including Life All-American Cody Melphy. He’s joined the Army and he will likely become available before long via the World Class Athlete Program, which saw Will Holder, Ben Leatigaga and others embed with the Eagles full-time.

A couple of other players who’ve caught Friday’s eye over the summer season are Grand Canyon’s Maceo Brown and Lindenwood’s Lorenzo Thomas. But perhaps the most interesting find was Peni Tigave. The 29-year-old Australian-born Fijian played several years of professional league in the NRL before earning a scholarship to play gridiron at Baylor. He was brought in as a running back and switched to the defensive line, a la Thretton Palamo at Utah, and his size and experience have the USA coaches intrigued to the point they’re working with World Rugby to establish whether or not he’s eligible for the Eagles.

Don’t be surprised if you see established players, like Isles, Hughes and Bender, suiting up for the Eagles at Silicon Valley, or a bunch of newcomers like Melphy and Tigave, or a mixture of both. After camp, Friday will determine what kind of squad to send to San Jose.

“In terms of who we will pick to play, I don’t know yet,” he said. “I don’t know whether I’ll take my strongest 12, or whether I’ll take several others we’re looking at, or whether we’ll take the seven or eight who need games.”

Either way, Silicon Valley will present the first of a record three times in less than nine months Eagle fans get to see their 7s team play at home. 

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