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The Kansas City Blues won the West’s first qualifier tournament Saturday in The Woodlands, Texas, staking their claim as the team to beat in the region.

The Blues return essentially the same 7s side that finished second in the West and 16th in the country last season. Several of the players grew up playing together in the Jr. Blues system or have been playing with the club for years now. The nucleus is young and talented, and it was bolstered in a big way last weekend by one of the few new additions – Ed Mills.

Mills has been in the Kansas City area for a few years, but until this past 15s season he was playing for the Kansas Jayhawks men’s club, which only plays socially. He’s shredded up plenty of teams in that time, which he should have, given that he played in both the Munster and Edinburgh pipelines in Ireland and Scotland. Mills has impressive acceleration and the ability to step through a defense, which helped him score more tries than any other Blue on the weekend.

“He’s been huge. He’s the playmaker that we were looking for last year that we didn’t really have. We play great team rugby. We don’t have any outstanding individuals that can create huge amounts of scoring by themselves, until Ed got here, and he’s kind of filled that role,” said Blues coach Scott Kramm.

“He played pretty high level 7s back in Ireland, and I think he enjoys it. He’s been a great leader for our team. Everybody around here knows him. I think the guys in the West got a taste of him in 15s from him playing fullback for us, but I think last weekend he was kind of a secret weapon that everybody will be prepared for next time.”

One weapon the entire West should be well prepared for by now is Kansas City’s restart tandem of Kelly Mercer and Kevin Schwartze. Mercer puts the ball in the air and Schwartze grabs it. That repeated pattern is what killed WE Rugby (formerly known as the Woodlands Exiles) in the semifinals Saturday, as the Blues were routinely gathering possession well inside the attacking end.

“We had a lot of success last year [with the kickoff] and we’ve been drilling the hell out of it. It’s a big part of our practices, kickoffs, more or less because it’s a big part of the game,” said Kramm. “You could probably say 50-percent of the game is restarts, if you’re good at them. You can’t win if you don’t have the ball.”

The Blues got better over the course of the day, peaking in the championship against Glendale, but it took a pool loss to the Dallas Harlequins to spark that improvement.

“I knew before the tournament what kind of team our team could be, and it just depends on what kind of rugby you decide to play. The Quins had a very good game plan, they pressured us very hard and we didn’t react to it,” said Kramm.

“I think that got everybody’s head screwed on straight. Everybody was disappointed in themselves, they were angry with each other, and that showed in the next game. We all came out and played great team rugby. The guys that weren’t making tackles were making great tackles. Everybody was covering each other. You could say guys like Ed Mills had great games, Kevin Schwartze had great games, but those were team wins.”

The Blues will take a week off now before hosting the next West Qualifier July 6. Denver, the defending West champs, will be closer to full strength by then. The Barbos left several people at home last weekend, allowing them some rest after a long 15s campaign. And WE Rugby will have Shaun Potgieter and Zac Mizell back following the All American tour. Potgieter should help them in the restart, significantly. So the Blues will be facing another stiff test in two weeks, but this time at home.