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A summer full of competition culminates this weekend as the 2018 USA Rugby Emirate Airline Club 7s National Championship descends upon Columbia University in New York City, N.Y. From the nearly 70 men’s teams at the start of the summer, 16 teams qualified for Nationals in the 29 regional tournaments. There is a lot of turnover from last year as only nine clubs return to the postseason from 2016. With two-time reigning champion, the Rugby Utah Selects, not competing this summer, a new titleholder will be crowned.

Pool play starts at 10:00 am on Saturday with Denver Barbarians taking on the Atlanta Old White. The tournament will be broadcasted live on FloRugby.com.

Pool A – Denver Barbarians, Mystic River, Atlanta Old White, Belmont Shore Gold

Pool A boasts the most history at Nationals as the four squads have played in a total of 38 championship tournaments. The Denver Barbarians are the elder statesmen as 2018 marks the 24th appearance for the Frontier club and the Barbos have qualified 17 out of the last 18 years. Mystic River and the Atlanta Old White return after missing out last summer where each squad finished 8th and 11th, respectively, in 2016. Belmont Shore’s second side, the Gold, round out the pool.

After coming up one point short last year, Denver is back with a new look with a good amount of new faces. “We will be missing some of our players that are playing at the international level; however, some of the players that have been a part of our program in the past have really developed this year,” head coach Steve LaPorta said. “Lots of new young guys in our program so this has been a development year for us. We were fortunate to have quality guys that came into the program and worked hard.”

Celester Asuega, Mickey Bateman, Michael Al-Jiboori, Noah Pflaum, and Jeremy Misailegalu anchor the squad for Denver. Everyone who steps on the pitch is expected to know their role, tackle, and compete. LaPorta stresses to “play within our team structure and overcome the adversity that happens in every 7s tournament.”

Misailegalu and Al-Jiboori will be relied upon for leadership and their play-making ability. “Jeremy has matured to match his physical ability and Michael has asserted himself of the field every time we have needed him to,” LaPorta stated.

With the likes of Mystic who came in second in the contentious Northeast, Atlanta Old White taking the South early, and a spunky Belmont second side that won the final Pacific South qualifier, the two spots to the cup round in Pool A will be intense.

Pool B – Washington Athletic Club, Metropolis, Santa Monica, New Orleans

With three teams returning to Nationals from 2017, Pool B features the Pacific North’s Washington Athletic Club (WAC), Midwest Champion Metropolis, Santa Monica from the Pacific South and Red River’s New Orleans. The WAC looks to be the frontrunner after last season’s third-place finish, but look out for Metropolis. The Minneapolis Marauders swept the Midwest and will give the WAC everything it can handle in pool play. The WAC plays Metropolis at 6:00 pm on Saturday.

The WAC won both qualifiers in the Northwest and emerged from a crowded Pacific North to beat Life West for a berth to Nationals. Head coach Mike Palefau has struggled with numbers due to the MLR’s Seattle Seawolves’ playoff run, but the team came together when it mattered.

Palefau attributed the WAC’s success to his squad’s resilience and experience. Scott Dean and Ian Wright are the playmakers with Shane Moore as the scoring threat on the outside. Cecil Ala and Riekert Hattingh are the headliners on defense and Neori Drew is always there to do the dirty work.

Absent last year, New Orleans is back to Nationals for the fifth time and hopes to improve on its 15th place finish in 2016. NORFC came in second in the Red River, while Santa Monica qualified for its fifth Nationals in a row.

Pool C – Old Blue, Dallas, Cleveland Rugby Academy, Kansas City Blues

Old Blue and Dallas are back at Nationals and will clash with upstart Cleveland Rugby Academy (CRA) and Kansas City in Pool C. Old Blue and Dallas won the Plate and the Bowl last year, respectively, and both are ready to make an impact this weekend.

Following its national runner-up finish in 2016, Kansas City failed to qualify last season but earned the third spot in the Frontier this summer. CRA’s upset of Metropolis pool play in the Midwest Championship put it into position to qualify for Nationals. With a squad full of college players and standouts from the Cleveland area, CRA reached the final and are now dancing.

Old Blue is the team to beat in Pool C after sporting an undefeated record in the Northeast winning all four tournaments. Dom Wareing directs a hard-working, unified front that enjoys pushing each other to be better and has each other’s back. “We are like the power rangers; 1-13 all have their own unique threats and strengths on both sides of the ball but our real strength lies in when you put us all together and our combinations.”

The tournament hosts return seven members from last year’s fifth-place club. “Although the core of the squad has remained, there are some new faces that have joined the club which has raised the standard of the squad. It also means the club is a lot deeper with 20 or so guys that could realistically find themselves on the final roster of 13 for Nationals.”

Old Blue’s main competition for Pool C supremacy will be the Red River and Eastern Open champion, the Dallas Reds. With intriguing athletes and tremendous depth, the Reds won the first Red River qualifier then traveled to the east coast to capture an automatic bid. Dallas returned to the Red River and finished in second in the last two qualifiers.

The Reds placed ninth in 2017 in Chris Howard’s first campaign as head coach. In his second season, the squad has been exceedingly receptive and learned that they had tremendous upside.  “Without a doubt, the strength of the team is its heart, it's refusal to be out-hustled. The squad stands above others because we drive home the mantra of the team over self. I frequently tell them to play to impress...not me, not their friends/family, but to impress their teammates/themselves.”

Having locked up a berth to Nationals early, the Reds focused on depth and improving teamwork. Dmontae Noble and Narada Jackson are speed demons that can score from anywhere; Lee Foliaki, Chad Joseph, and Kelly Kolberg are workhorses in the breakdown; Jake Campey, Chris Saint and Blake Boulton are momentum swingers; and Zack Klump, Lucas Bersin and Dillon Carrion are threats off the bench.

Howard indicated the key to this weekend is to “continue to develop the mental control and patience to dictate tempo and play a suffocating defense.  If they play as they are capable, they will be tough to beat.”

As for Old Blue, Wareing will have his men ready and take it one game at a time. “While [a national championship] may be our ultimate goal, it is not our focus. If we can put in a performance that we are happy with and look to back that up throughout the first day, we will be pleased going into Sunday.”

Dallas and Old Blue will conclude pool play on Saturday at 6:40 pm with the top spot at stake.

Pool D – Belmont Shore, Bulldog Rugby, Beltway Elite, New York Athletic Club

The final pool may be the toughest pool to predict. Belmont Shore has been dominant all summer in the Pacific South, Bulldog revamped itself with a collegiate-heavy squad, Beltway won the final three qualifiers to prove itself in the Mid-Atlantic, and NYAC is a team not to be discounted in any competition.

With two sides playing at Nationals, Belmont Shore is the deepest club in the men’s tournament. Belmont lost to the WAC in the consolation final last year and captain Max Paronelli attributed it to a lack of preparation. “We didn’t prepare ourselves the way we should have. Now, Peter Sio has guided us in the right direction as to how we play together and how we attack opposing teams offensively and defensively... Physically and skill-wise, we have all the talent in the world, but it’s about being mentally prepared.”

This year, the team camaraderie and the experience playing with each other has increased and according to Paronelli, “it’s the closest brotherhood we have ever had.” While the team is full of offensive weapons, it is the defense that has powered Belmont to the Pacific South and Western Open titles.

Keni Nasoqeqe is a force in the forwards for the Shore and Sione Masoe is a dynamic two-way player. Former Tongan National player Pila Iongi is a unique, once in a generation talent and ConRoy Smith is a welcome addition on the wing. The unsung hero of the band is scrumhalf Danny Thomas. “He was clutch all season for 15s and he has done the same for us in 7s,” Paronelli noted. “He’s great at controlling the game, getting back in sweeping position, and increasing communication.”

After placing in sixth in its first appearance at Nationals, Bulldog Rugby's founders David Fischer, Mike Newcomer, and Stephen Lewis decided to concentrate on developing a younger team comprised mostly of collegiate players bolstered by player-coach Tim Stanfill and veteran Mike Nelson.

Bulldog moved from the Northeast to the Frontier and after a camp in Vail, Colo., the team won the Barbarian 7s to start the season, came in third at the weather-shortened Heartland 7s, and lost in the finals of the Denver 7s. Ultimately, Bulldog secured the second seed in the Frontier with a combined 12-2 record.

The young squad includes four players from Lindenwood such as JP Aguirre and Christian Rodriguez, Harley Wheeler from Life, NDC’s Marcus Tupuola, AIC’s Jihad Khabir, and Aaron Mathews from Saint Mary’s.

“Losing Lorenzo Thomas to an ACL injury was a blow, but Tim Stanfill is back to his best as well as providing on and off-field leadership,” head coach Stephen Lewis said. “I am looking to see how some of these young players continue to develop in what is a challenging group with perennial challengers Belmont Shore, Beltway, a team we faced last year at Nationals, and NYAC, with whom I am personally very familiar from years of coaching in the Northeast.”