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Arkansas State hasn’t lost a 7s match since the fall of 2012. To put it in gridiron terms, ASU’s streak is akin to USC’s 34-straight wins from 2003-2005 or Miami’s 34-game run from 2000-2003. The Red Wolves’ last loss came at the hands of Life in the South Independent Championship.
ASU went on to win six games at Nationals that year, beating NC State, Cal and Middlebury in pool play and Kutztown and Delaware in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, before avenging the earlier loss to Life in the final. (The Red Wolves have only ever lost to Life in 7s. They were felled in their first three meetings with the Running Eagles, but haven’t lost since.)
The Red Wolves pitched another perfect fall in 2013, this time beating the Running Eagles for the SIRC title. At Nationals, they ran through Oregon State, Florida, North Texas, Air Force, Dartmouth and St. Mary’s for a second-consecutive National Championship.
Before the 2014/2015 season, USA Rugby made the decision to move its 7s championship to the spring, which meant no 2014 champion would be crowned. ASU played no 7s matches in that calendar year, but last weekend extended its three-year winning streak to 30 games in a four-team tournament in Memphis, pummeling the host Tigers, Alabama and Mississippi State.
Arkansas State has a 15s meeting with Glendale Saturday, and then the 7s Red Wolves are off to Las Vegas to compete in the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship Qualifier Division at the Las Vegas Invitational. (ASU had originally scheduled a match with St. Mary's the same weekend, but couldn't afford to do both. This article originally said they were planning to do both, but has since been corrected.)
Last weekend’s tournament served as a warm-up for the Vegas event, as well as a selection vehicle. 17 players are still hoping to be selected for the Vegas trip, and all but one, the still recovering Connor Cook, got game time in Memphis. With Gavin Brown and Zinzan Elan-Puttick, starters on the 2013 National Championship team, injured for the spring, and many other former 7s starters graduated, there’s plenty of competition within the ASU camp.
“Watching the guys play since 2012 and before that, you get to learn a lot. You get to watch some good guys play some good rugby,” said John McCole, a forward hoping to crack the top 12. “So, I guess learning the plays is a little bit difficult, and timing, but being out there with them, it’s easy to pick up on when you’re surrounded by good players.”
Dylan Carrion, MVP of the 2013 National Championship, and Tom Haussrer are the only healthy starters left from the 2013 title team. Carrion is the only one left from the 2012 run. His and Haussrer’s presence has helped the program maintain its 7s legacy through a year without any games, as well as a couple of coaching changes, but there's still a need to prove ASU's reloading rather than rebuilding.
Helping in the effort will be Michael Baska, who became an internet sensation in the last year and has cut his teeth on the men’s club circuit with the Kansas City Blues. Kirk Pretorius is a massive unit, and he’s returned to rugby after a stint with the gridiron Red Wolves. Cook has been just on the periphery in seasons past and looks to take a bigger role this year. Then there's a smattering of up-and-comers looking to make their mark on a program in the midst of an epic streak.
“I think a lot of teams are motivated by the fact that [Vegas] is a CRC qualifier, which of course we are, too. But the fact that we’re in this streak makes every tournament we go to have a higher standard, and we have to represent Arkansas State 7s in that way,” said Carrion, who as one of the best players in the nation on the best team in the nation, has been left watching the CRC from his couch.
“It’s definitely something we want to compete in, [the CRC], and it motivates us. But we’d be foolish to think we’re the only team that’s been done wrong by them, because the AIC’s, Lindenwoods and other small schools have been just as shafted, and they’ll be coming with the same motivation in Vegas.”
While the Red Wolves have their sights fixed on the program's first-ever CRC berth, 23 other teams will leave room in their luggage for a red and black scalp.