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The first college 7s qualifier kicks off Saturday in Bowling Green, Ohio, as the MAC Schools Conference hosts its inaugural tournament. All of the MAC Schools member teams will be in attendance, as well as Davenport, Notre Dame and Wheeling Jesuit.
The favorite to win the entire event is Davenport, who showed they’re capable of beating any team in the country in 7s in February, reaching the semifinals of the CRC Qualifier in Las Vegas. The Panthers fell to Utah via a last-second try setup by Thretton Palamo, but Davenport beat the Utes in pool play (with Palamo not suited up), Stony Brook, Regis and Southern Illinois prior to being eliminated.
“We were still leading with no time left, and the guys after that tournament just felt we should have beaten those guys, but we didn’t,” said Davenport coach Kruger Van Biljon of the semifinal loss to Utah. "And that’s the one thing about 7s, it’s the bounce of the ball and it’s someone else’s win.
“Coming from the tournament, they want to go back. We are probably going to go to Vegas again, which is part of the reason our fall season is becoming our 7s season. The guys are lit up and they want to play 7s.”
The two significant losses for the Panthers 7s squad from last season are Joe Marino and Lance Cavanaugh. But All American JP Eloff, who has been in Eagles camp in Chula Vista, is back, along with Ryan Hargraves and the rest of the team. Breaking into the lineup are four freshmen – Domonique Bailey from Lousiville, Ken., local product Brady Gent, Mike Houston from Brother Rice in Chicago and Alek Mares.
“Most of the guys played over the summer, so fitness levels should be fine,” said Van Biljon. “We’re just trying to build the structure where we left off in Vegas to make sure we got that structure, and with the four new freshmen, get to know these guys and play on the same level. That’s the biggest challenge.”
Another team with a bunch of guys who have been playing all summer is Western Michigan. The Broncos fielded a team on the Midwest 7s circuit. Though the squad included a couple of community college kids and some alums, nine of the players from the summer roster will be suiting up this weekend.
“The kids who were playing for me, I’m not kidding, just started playing rugby,” said Western Michigan coach Mark Allen. “But I have some really good athletes.
“They got some really good experience…For me I think the 7s program has really helped develop all their skills and the like, and I’m really hoping this will help transcend our program.”
Bowling Green is hosting the event and won’t be an easy out. Max Narewski, who would entering his junior year, is not enrolled at Bowling Green. He is apparently looking at options to transfer to another rugby-playing school and/or play with the Chicago Lions this fall. He played on the National runner-up Lions 7s team this summer and moonlighted with the All Americans, so his absence is a big blow for the Falcons.
However, Dominic Mauer is back for his final season at Bowling Green, and he has plenty of high-level experience, playing with 1823 the last couple of summers and joining Tiger Rugby for Serevi Rugbytown Sevens this year. BGSU has also added a quality transfer in Mike Zeigler from Ohio and a pair of promising freshmen – Mitch Sora, who is on a full academic scholarship and played for the U18 Ontario 7s team, and Mike Powell, a product of the Doylestown High School program.
Miami of Ohio has been one of the best 7s teams in the country the last couple of years, but the Reds have lost virtually their entire 7s roster from last season. Gone are Mike Pelagalli, Luke Markovich, Pat Rahill and Derek Patick. So if the Reds are going to compete for the MAC Schools title and a repeat trip to Nationals, they’ll have to do it with new play makers.
Notre Dame, as a club, has as much 7s experience as any other competing Saturday, having played in all three CRCs, so they figure to be a competitive team, too. However, they too suffered a lot of turnover, losing over half their roster from the June CRC.
For Wheeling Jesuit, Saturday is the new varsity program’s first opportunity to compete.