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Six years ago, the Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) burst onto the scene to provide, in theory, premier level rugby sevens competition and to fill the void in college rugby that was lacking a college 7s championship. In the initial competition, the talking point was always that these young men would some day form the pieces to lead team USA to Olympic glory in Rio. As fans of the USA Eagles 7s know, this season marked the Americans first ever cup victory on the Sevens World Series with an impressive victory in London to close the season–and the CRC has proven an important part in that rise. In a matter of days, team USA will be competing in the NACRA qualifier to make that 2016 Olympic dream come true. But, this weekend, it was the current stars of the college game taking the national airwaves.
In its earliest days, the potential for the CRC was obvious but the talent and skills in the short code were lacking. A handful of teams had a relative grasp of the dynamics of seven-a-side, but most were still trying to play fifteens as though each team had lost eight players to the sin bin. Certainly, the athletic talent was there in those early days. Indeed, the prediction that those collegiate stars would one day lead team USA to glory was panned out in London when two players who competed against each other in the 2010 CRC final–Thretton Palamo (Utah) and Danny Barrett (Cal)–helped lift the cup. Add in the national awakening to the player that is Rocco Mauer (2010 bowl champion with Bowling Green) along with players such as Brett Thompson (Arizona), Will Holder (Army), Don Pati (Utah), Seamus Kelly (Cal), Collin Hawley (Cal), Blaine Scully (Cal), Keegan Engelbrecht (Cal), and the New England Patriots’ Nate Ebner (Ohio State) and its easy to see that there were some amazing players in Columbus–the original host for the CRC before relocating to Philly in 2011.
From Day 1 in 2010, everyone knew the final would be Utah and Cal. Cal was in the midst of a jaw-dropping run in XVs and Utah was one of the few teams that routinely looked like they might belong on the field with Cal and included Thretton Palamo, who had captured national attention with his inclusion in the Eagles XVs roster for the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Aside from the Utes pulling the upset and besting the Golden Bears, there were not many surprises. Since then, however, the level of competition has exploded.
It didn’t take long for the CRC to pave the way for meaningful rugby sevens in the college level. Quickly, the once by-invitation-only tournament transformed itself to a hybrid and opened its doors to established names and lesser-known schools with rugby hearts and souls. Teams like Life and Kutztown, once known only to college rugby diehards, now took the field against NCAA stalwarts such as Notre Dame, Penn State, Texas, and UCLA. To accommodate the expanded qualification process and to ready teams for national spotlight in pursuit of the sports highest prize, organized conferences with serious sevens tournaments sprung up. But, perhaps more importantly, the CRC qualifier was added to the laundry list of competitions at the Las Vegas Invitational that compliment the USA Sevens stop of the HSBC Sevens World Series
Six years in, we still came into the CRC with a dated mindset: we thought there were invincible teams that we could pencil into the cup quarterfinal. There’s no two ways about it, we were wrong. A couple weeks ago, fellow RugbyToday analyst and Lindenwood–Belleville coach Pat Clifton asked, “[Is the 2015] CRC Field the Most Accomplished Ever?” The action on the field proved the question had an easy answer: yes. That statement and answer can be taken one step further to include that this year’s CRC was the best ever college 7s championship, period. Coming in, Cal was the obvious favorite to add a third consecutive Pete Dawkins Trophy to the overflowing cabinets in Berkley. Other serious contenders on paper were 2014 semifinalists Life, Kutztown, and UCLA along with 2015 LVI champion Arkansas State. In the end, of the five clear favorites, only four reached the cup quarterfinal and only one–Arkansas State–did so in commanding fashion.
The CRC’s twenty teams were divided into five pools. Pool play was contested on Saturday and the knockout competition the following day. The top team from each pool would advance to the cup quarterfinal. The other three quarterfinalists would come from the remaining teams with the best records and point differentials. The remaining sides were split among the plate, bowl, and shield competitions–mirroring the Sevens World Series awards.
Pool A was led by Jack Clark’s Cal Golden Bears. Despite a recent run of coming up just short in the XVs national championship game, Cal has rattled off back-to-back titles in 7s. In their first game, the Golden Bears dismantled Boston College 33–5. Next was a resounding victory over a talented, but disappointing Notre Dame team (39–5). Entering the final game of Day 1, Cal had all but officially secured a birth into the cup quarterfinal. Perhaps with that knowledge distracting the Golden Bears they took the pitch against upstart Virginia Tech. The Hokies began the day with an impressive (36–19) win over the Irish and then stumbled to a disappointing 17–17 draw with Boston College. Undeterred, Va. Tech gave the powerhouse side all it could handle as Cal’s squandered try-scoring opportunities nearly cost them the match. Instead, the veterans pulled out the uninspired 12–7 win to appear vulnerable going into Sunday. Notably, Cal still sealed the top seed in the cup quarterfinal. It’s a testament to coach Clark and his program when a top seed, perfect record day 1 is disappointing. In the final Pool A match, shown live on NBC, Notre Dame found its form and ensured Boston College would remain winless on the day: ND 19, BC 15. The result relegated Boston College to the shield competition while elevating Notre Dame into the bowl. Had Va. Tech managed to slot one more conversion against BC, the Hokies would have been poised to reach the cup quarterfinal. The 1–1–1 line left a clear path to the plate competition instead.
Pool B was expected to be dominated by Kutztown with Navy providing the only possible test. Navy’s role as contender to unseat Kutztown looked to be very much in jeopardy after struggling to put away Temple. Coming away the 12–7 victor, however, left Navy undefeated heading into its match with Kutztown. The Kutztown Golden Bears began the day with a 24–14 victory of Air Force. With the winner all but assured to claim the top seed from the pool, it was the Midshipmen who came away with the convincing (24–14) win. Navy added to its undefeated Day 1 with a heavy-handed win over rival Air Force (27–12). Kutztown, desperately needing to maximize its points differential to secure one of the three non-pool champion spots into the quarterfinal put the wood to Temple: Kutztown 49, Temple 7. Kutztown’s impressive +40 differential meant the Golden Bears still had a chance of returning to the CRC final to make up for a 24–21 loss to Cal last year.
Life University, the three-time semifinalist and 2013 finalist, was the heavily expected favorite in a tough Pool C. Joining the Running Eagles were Big Ten Universities Champion Indiana University, Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference Champion Alabama, and Atlantic Coast runner-up Clemson. To those outside of the Midwest, Indiana’s team has been a secret. Since I reside in Indianapolis, I was fully aware of the fact that this IU team was leaps and bounds ahead of the side that last competed in the CRC in 2010. Even then, just how good this team could be was still news to me. The Hoosiers, with rugby alumnus Mark Cuban in the stands cheering them on, began the day with a 26–12 victory of Bama. Similarly, Life bested Clemson 26–14 to set up what was quickly looking to be the deciding match of the pool. A back and forth first half ended with Life and IU level at 12. In the second half, the Hoosiers pushed the lead to 24–12. Life managed a consolation try, but it was too little too late: Indiana 24, Life 19. The shocking result left Life in unfamiliar territory needing to hammer a talented Alabama team to reach the quarterfinal. Indiana, on the other hand, needed only to hold serve against Clemson to top the pool. The Crimson Tide, hampered by numerous injuries, were mercilessly undone by Life: Life 36, Alabama 0. Clemson entered the final match of Day 2 with a winless record, having lost 14–12 to Alabama. Nevertheless, the Tigers were confident and believed that they could slow what was rapidly looking like a Hoosier juggernaut. Instead, the onslaught continued and Indiana walked away the 27–5 victor.
Coming in, there could be little doubt that Pool D was, as they constantly say ad nauseam in soccer, the pool of death. Arkansas State and UCLA were each serious contenders to win the national title. Texas, despite losing to Temple in the shield final last year, is only a few years removed from a cup quarterfinal birth in 2012. Rounding out the pool was a fairly unknown University of Michigan team. The Wolverines accomplishments this season, though generally overlooked, were notable. Michigan claimed the Dayton 7s title and finished runner-up in two other tournaments including at the hands of fellow BTU Rugby member Indiana.
In the first batch of games, Arkansas State held serve over Michigan (17–5) and UCLA blasted Texas in a 50-point shutout. The second group of Pool D games was a bit different. Arkansas State bested Texas (22–10) and Michigan provided the, at that point, upset of the tournament. Few gave Michigan a second thought in Pool D. Nevertheless, to the surprise of a great many–me included–Michigan toppled UCLA 17–12. The Bruins loss made a three-way tie at 2–1 a very realist possibility. In order for that to happen, UCLA would need to hand the Red Wolves their first loss in 7s since 2012. Despite looking vulnerable in the first two matches, Arkansas State took care of business against UCLA, shutting out the Bruins 19–0. With a possible quarterfinal birth on the line, the upstart Wolverines defeated the Texas Longhorns 29–10. The win booked Michigan its second consecutive trip to the cup quarterfinal as the 8th seed.
Pool E was led by two very familiar sides to CRC fans: Arizona and Dartmouth. Dartmouth claimed the crown in 2011 & 2012. Arizona is a side that had reached the cup quarterfinal each year until last year when the Wildcats to an early exit in the bowl semifinal against Notre Dame. Arizona’s best run came in 2012 when the team ran into a Dartmouth dynasty and were without star player Peter Tiberio who had broken his arm earlier in the day. Joining the Big Green and Wildcats were Penn State and Saint Joseph’s. Arizona started on the right foot with a comfortable win over Penn State (33–10). The Wildcats then found a big misstep in their second match of the day losing 12–5 to Saint Joseph’s. The presumptive top seed, Dartmouth, started the day with a commanding victory over the Hawks (31–7) before struggling to a 15–10 victory over the Nittany Lions. A victory for Dartmouth over Arizona in each side’s final match of pool play would mean yet another quarterfinal appearance for the Ivy Leaguers. Instead, Arizona dominated the match from end-to-end to win 24–0. The scoreless loss was too much to overcome in the points differential and Dartmouth’s +5 differential fell 7 points behind Michigan’s +12. The match to decide who would avoid the bottom of the pool was the most exciting conclusion to any match on the day. Penn State notched two tries in the last thirty seconds to shock St. Joseph’s 24–21.
On Day 2, the exciting upsets of Day 1 appeared a thing of the past to start the day. The veteran squads of Life and Kutztown were able to end the day for upstarts Navy and Indiana: Life 15–0 Navy & Kutztown 31–12 Indiana. Then Arkansas State took the pitch against Arizona. The match started with the Red Wolves leading by 5 thanks to an early unconverted try. Just before the half, Arkansas State was on the wrong end of two yellow cards. Starting the second half, the Red Wolves impressively managed to avoid yielding a score while outnumbered, but the cost of doing so left ASU exhausted. Arizona managed to break through for a converted try to win the match 7–5 and post the most stunning upset of the tournament.
Closing out the cup quarterfinal matches was Cal vs Michigan. Unlike the earlier matches in which the 2, 3, and 4 seeds each fell, no such misfortune would befall the two-time defending champions. The Golden Bears laid it on the Wolverines and strolled into the cup semifinals on the winning end of a 31-point shutout. The quarterfinal results meant that only Cal remained unbeaten so far in the tournament.
In the consolation competitions, Boston College sent Texas home winless (38–5) in the shield semifinal and Temple edged a disappointed Clemson (21–17) to setup a match between the Eagles and Owls to decide the shield champion later in the day. In the bowl semifinal, St. Joseph’s defeated Alabama (21–14) and Notre Dame hammered Penn State (22–0). With the NBC Sports Network cameras rolling, Dartmouth secured a spot in the plate final–defeating Air Force 20–5–to meet UCLA after the Bruins posted a 27–10 victory over the Hokies of Virginia Tech.
The cup semifinals began with top seed California facing off against fifth seed Life. The Golden Bears wasted little time taking charge of the match. On the back of three tries, it was Cal in front 19–0 at the break. The defendant champions stretched the lead to 33–0 before conceding a consolation try to end the match 33–5. Despite being the two-time defending champion, it has been a long time since the Golden Bears looked this dominant in the knockout stage. That last time was the first time: 2010. There, Cal glided into the final against Utah after hammering Tennessee 36–0 and Arizona 33–0. In the end, however, it was the Utes who came away victorious (31–26).
To see if history repeats itself, either Kutztown or Arizona was going to have to stake a claim to Cal’s scalp. Kutztown took a 12-point first-half lead. In the second half, Arizona pulled within striking distance (12–7), but Kutztown answered to push the match out of reach. The final points went in favor of the Wildcats, but it was too late to change the result: Kutztown 19, Arizona 14. The win meant a rematch from last year’s final in which Cal topped Kutztown 24–21.
Before the men took the pitch to decide the hardware matches, Penn State and Lindenwood trotted out at PPL Park to decide the women’s 7s national championship. Penn State was seeking a third-consecutive sweep of both the XVs and 7s titles. Lindenwood women were looking to claim a national title to end the men’s bragging rights. Through one half, Penn State was in front 12–0. It took a while, but four minutes into the second half, Lindenwood got on the board to close it to 12–7 with plenty of time to crush Nittany Lions dreams. A try with just over a minute remaining and a second on full time sent Penn State (24–7) to the title and left the Lindenwood women still looking for a first national title–their day will come.
The NBC coverage got under way with Boston College battling it out with Temple for the shield. Temple scored first with a penalty try after four minutes of play. The play not only cost Boston College seven points but also resulted in a yellow card for a high tackle. A second try from the hometown side before the half put the Eagles under pressure. BC looked set to get a score but lost the ball on a questionable decision to chip kick. Indiscipline from Temple resulted in a yellow card five meters out from the line. But, the opportunity was lost when BC mishandled the ball for a knock on to end the half. After a prolonged delay due to confusion on substitution of an inured BC player, Boston College got on the board with 5 minutes left: 12–5 Temple. With a minute and a half left, Temple capitalized on a Boston College penalty to score a converted try, extending the lead to fourteen. But Boston College struck back with seven. The restart came with enough time, but Temple collected the ball and kicked it into touch to end the match: Temple 19, Boston College 12. The win was secured the shield in consecutive CRCs for Temple.
The bowl final pitted a Notre Dame and St. Joseph’s. The Fighting Irish struck first after prolonged possession that seemed should have been surrendered on a forward pass early in the cycle. The resulting restart rolled through in-goal to give St. Joseph’s a free kick at midfield. Although St. Joe’s surrendered possession to solid rucking by the Irish, the Hawks moment would come with an interception try by the post to give St. Joe’s the 7–5 lead with under a minute left in the half. The time was enough for St. Joe’s to add a second try before the break on account of poor Irish tackling and a possibly forward pass. The second half started with another error by St. Joseph’s on the restart by letting the ball bounce into touch. Notre Dame stole the lineout and punched it through the Hawks defense to draw the match level. The Hawks broke the lock with a great kick forward on a loose pass that was scooped on the friendly bounce for the five-pointer. The Fighting Irish added a try of their own when the shoeless runner went 80+ meters to break a tackle and score near the post. The crucial conversion kick was lacking to leave the match level with under a minute in regulation. The restart was the third by the Irish to roll into touch to setup a lineout. Yet again, Notre Dame stole the lineout and turned the ball up field to provide a second heartbreaking loss for St. Joseph’s at full time: ND 22, SJ 17.
The plate final would’ve been a very believable prediction for the cup final. Instead, Dartmouth stumbled against Arizona in pool play and UCLA fell prey to the injury bug to slip into the plate competition. Not where either team wanted to be, but each desperately wanted to leave on a high note. UCLA’s opening try was one of pure will imposed upon Dartmouth. It all started with a huge hit popping the ball loose followed by a scoop and long run for the 7–0 Bruin lead. UCLA was then hard done losing a penalty. After some confusion for which UCLA player was responsible for unsportsmanlike play, UCLA was shown a yellow card and left to play down a man. Dartmouth capitalized right away for a 90-meter scamper untouched. Dartmouth failed on the conversion attempt to trail by two. Despite playing down a man, UCLA was able to add seven to extend the Bruin lead and burn the yellow card to get back to seven men. As the hooter sounded, it was Dartmouth who were on the end of a tough yellow card for an intentional knock onto attempt to stave off a UCLA try. Down a man, UCLA was too much for Dartmouth and added a third first-half try to lead 21–5.
The second half got underway with Dartmouth still down a man. One minute in, Dartmouth got a second yellow card for the same infraction as before–intentionally knocking on the ball. Up seven men to five, UCLA easily added a fourth try but not the tough conversion: UCLA 26, Dartmouth 5. Dartmouth was not down to five for long, having regained the first player with the UCLA try. UCLA’s restart floated into touch, giving Dartmouth a midfield restart. With just over three minutes remaining, Dartmouth was finally back to seven clearly exhausted players. UCLA burnt the tired Dartmouth legs to add a match-sealing converted try. In the end, the plate went back to LA: UCLA 33, Dartmouth 5. The only thing left to be decided is whether the Pete Dawkins Trophy would also be heading home to California or stay in Pennsylvania.
The final was not only a rematch of the 2014 final, but once again paired two teams known as the Golden Bears. Despite being tested more heavily in the first two matches, it was Kutztown that capitalized first with a try on a quick tap from a Cal penalty at the 5-meter line. The important conversion was well taken and Kutztown stood seven points clear at the restart. Cal fumbled the restart ball to give Kutztown an attacking scrum just outside the 22-meter line but Cal regained possession on a penalty at the ruck. Cal quickly answered with a try up the gut to tie it up. With under a minute, Cal earned a scrum at the Kutztown 22 and looked to cap it off with a try in the corner, but the assistant ref called the runner out to end the half level.
The would-be try scorer from Cal in the first half, Andrew Battaglia, got his chance in the second half to get his name in the scorers column and capitalized to put his team in front 12–7. Kutztown squandered great field position with three minutes remaining when a KU lineout was knocked back into touch. Cal turned it up field but lost possession and Kutztown earned the momentum-swinging try with two minutes remaining to pull the match level. The tough conversion was no good and the match remained tied with a minute of play remaining. With the clock showing 5 seconds Kutztown got penalized for poor discipline and was shown a yellow card. With the match going to added extra time, Cal held the man advantage.
Sudden death began with a long kick from Cal. Kutztown took the ball cleanly and set in to attacking instead of working to burn the yellow card. Instead, Cal earned the midfield penalty a minute and a half in. California’s Jake Anderson found a gap in the Kutztown depleted defense to clinch a third consecutive national championship.
The 2015 installment of the CRC has proven that the goals that led to its creation are being met. College 7s has never been better. Teams such as Indiana University and Arkansas State -- who both qualified for the CRC -- proved the ever-evolving qualification process is working. Arkansas State, who hadn't lost a 7s match since 2012, and who was the defending USA Rugby National 7s Championship winner — an event created after the CRC — was upset by Arizona. Perennial powerhouses such as Cal and Kutztown continued to perform at the highest levels. Yet despite Cal’s domination, it was clear from this weekend's competition that the pack has caught up. With the Eagles 7s ranks already loaded with CRC veterans, it’s evident that the men of the collegiate game today will one day be the men claiming glory on the international stage.