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First year head coach. Loads of personnel changes. A lot more losses than wins. That’s where the 7s Eagles find themselves going into the fifth tournament of the World Series tonight in Wellington. That’s where they were heading into the fifth tournament of the 2012/2013 Series, too, before they went on to enjoy perhaps the most successful five-tournament stretch in program history.
The Eagles went 4-16-1 over the first four tournaments last season, finishing in the bottom eight all but once. So far this year the Eagles are 7-15 without sniffing the Cup Quarterfinals. The only teams the Eagles have beaten this season are Spain, Portugal and Tonga. At this time last year, the only teams they’d beaten were Spain, Tonga, Zimbabwe and Canada, with Canada standing out as the only better opponent.
By this time last year, Alex Magleby had made eight changes to his teams between tournaments. Matt Hawkins has made seven. In Magleby’s first full season, he spent the first few tournaments blooding several then-new players (Brett Thompson, Mikey Te’o, Nate Augspurger, Carlin Isles and Jack Halalilo), with some contributing the rest of the season and some fading into the background. This season, Hawkins has done the same with Stephen Tomasin, Ryan Matyas, Zac Mizell, Pono Haitsuka and Pat Blair.
Over the final five tournaments last season, Magleby made just five changes between tournaments, with most of them being forced by injuries. The Eagles went 12-15-1 and reached the Cup Quarterfinals four times in that stretch. Heading into Wellington, the only two changes Hawkins has made in the squad were forced by injuries.
Can the Eagles have the same turnaround they had last year, and is it going to start in Wellington?
“I’ve got a really good feeling about this squad. We’re young, we’re just getting into our groove, and I’ve got a good feeling about the next part of the season,” said Zack Test, who’s been there through the good and the bad the past several seasons.
“We just keep building on what we’ve done so far. Just eliminate those little mistakes and execute a little more, but still bring that character we’ve found [in Las Vegas], how we’re going to work really, really hard for each other no matter what hits us in the face – weather the storm as we say, go to the dark side.”
“I think we’re starting to build, especially this year it’s been a new coaching staff, new players starting to come through. So we’re slowly starting to build our own culture from last year,” added Andrew Durutalo. “I think we’re starting to get there, but we still have a lot to work on, still have a lot of room for improvement, so we’re working on that now.”
The team’s midseason ascent was dissected pretty well last year. Everyone knew relegation was a realistic possibility, and they rallied together to avoid it. Players also began to play like their contracts depended on it, which they did.
That also rings true this year, to some degree. Players still have to perform to keep their jobs, but the amount of contracted spots has grown significantly. The USA is closer in points to 15th place than 13th and just one more bad tournament ahead of the last-place Spaniards, but the defunding of Spain’s program, the change in the relegation format, and the Eagles’ dominance over Spain this season (4-0 with three blowouts) makes relegation a less scary proposition than last year.
It’s up to Hawkins to add the extra motivation for his team this weekend, and it’s up to the players, as Test says they are beginning to do more, to lay it all on the line for each other.