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The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship begins for the seventh time Saturday with its strongest field to date. All three champions – Utah (’10), Dartmouth (’11, ’12) and Cal (’13, ’14, ’15) are competing – Army’s back, and several other teams look primed to jump their game up. Here's my take on what you can expect.
THE FRONT RUNNERS
Cal would seem the odds-on favorite, given their recent success and the wealth of CRC championship experience on the squad. The Bears boast six players who’ve won all three of Cal’s titles, including three who are making their fourth tournament appearance.
However, Cal is also on the back of very short rest, having won the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup less than a month ago. The Bears are also missing some impact players. Lucas Dunne and Zachary Tavenner both started in the Varsity Cup final on the wings, but they’re out with injury. And fall 7s starter Evan Coleman broke his ankle in training.
It’s no coincidence that in 2011, when Cal last won a 15s national championship, the Bears had their worst CRC performance to date, losing to Utah in the quarterfinals. Coach Jack Clark said shortly after winning the Varsity Cup that a hangover from the 15s celebration was a legitimate concern.
Also legitimate concerns should be a stable of what look like ready contenders. Life is healthier and more dynamic than last year. Same with Arkansas State. And Kutztown, which has narrowly lost to Cal in the last two CRC finals, still lurks in the shadows.
Life welcomes the return of captain Harley Davidson, who missed last year’s tournament with injury, and CRC debutant Cody Melphy. Both are very dangerous runners with a mix of power and pace, and they will inject a considerable amount of homerun ability the Running Eagles didn’t possess last year. And they made the semifinals then, as they have each of their four previous appearances in the tournament.
Arkansas State was hamstrung by injuries in 2015, and the Red Wolves were in an awkward coaching position, with a lame duck coach being accompanied by his successor and predecessor at the tournament. This year, former A-State All-American Shaun Potgieter is the man in charge, and of that there’s no question. And there are some big pieces who didn’t play last year in place, none bigger than Zinzan Elan-Puttick. He might be the best player in the tournament. Sione Fangaiuha is a Lindenwood transfer who will make some line breaks. And the Red Wolves boast unmatched physicality up front with the likes of Alex Goff, Connor Cook and Kirk Pretorius. Pretorius, especially, is a load.
Kutztown has had an uncharacteristic spring season. Since fully committing its spring semester to 7s a couple of years ago, the Golden Bears have collected a lot of trophies and put up gaudy win-loss records in the lead-up to the CRC. This year, they haven’t as much. They’ve still won plenty, but not at the same clip as usual. Still, the Golden Bears return some heavy artillery, including Alex Faison-Donahoe, the athletic wing who’s been on the periphery of the national team, hot stepping Vetekina Malafu, massive workhorse Wes Hartmann, and the try-scoring tandem of Jordan Ghyzel and Robert Stortz. So don’t count Kutztown out of contention.
Life, Arkansas State and Kutztown are my favorites to give Cal a run for its money. But there is another tier of teams capable of knocking off anyone, too.
UCLA senior Seb Sharpe, who has been a highlight of the last few CRCs, will want a winning swan song. He’s got plenty of help in Zach Bonte and the Barry brothers.
It’d be foolish to count out Dartmouth. Dawitt Workie is one of the more capable playmakers in the competition, and John Abraham is a top shelf burner on the wing.
Indiana showed well last year, but the Hoosiers are capable of taking it a step further. Bryce Campbell is a big, strong ball carrier, and he’s accompanied by Jake Garwood and Teddy Terezis, both of whom are capable of starting on any team in the tournament.
Army enjoyed a banner 15s season under first-year head coach Matt Sherman, and he’s employed help from Team USA’s Will Holder, a former West Point All-American and CRC alum, to ready for the tournament. The Black Knights are going to be a tough out.
Navy has had some success this spring, beating the likes of Kutztown, and the Midshipmen are about as athletic as they have been.
Penn State has always been a head scratcher at the CRC – talented but underperforming. Now at the helm is Blake Burdette, who led Utah to the title of the inaugural CRC back in 2010, so look for the Nittany Lions to be as competitive as ever.
Who succeeds will partially come down to match-ups. Each of the pool winners advance to the cup quarterfinals, but only two second-place teams do, those with the biggest point differentials. So the pool pairings will be paramount.
POOL A – Arkansas State, Cal, Maryland, Tennessee
Arkansas State and Cal are the overwhelming favorites. If their meeting is close, which it should be, then the loser has a good chance at building a cushion against Maryland and Tennessee big enough to get through. Ultimately, I think Arkansas State beats Cal, but Cal gets through to the quarters.
POOL B – Boston College, Indiana, Kutztown, Notre Dame
This is a two-horse race between Kutztown and Indiana. Should be a good game, but Kutztown is the favorite. The question is, can the loser of that clash put up enough points on Notre Dame and Boston College? I’m not so sure.
POOL C – Arizona, Army, Navy, St. Joe’s
This is a very tough pool. Arizona is no slouch, and Army and Navy are very capable. So the reality may be that the group contains three of the top eight teams in the competition, but only one is likely to advance to the quarterfinals. Who that is is anyone’s guess, but my gut says Army.
POOL D – Drexel, Life, Penn State, Virginia Tech
Life will win this pool. If anyone stops them from doing so it’ll be Penn State. With Drexel expected to be the weakest team in the tournament, it would seem that if the Nittany Lions are significantly improved, they have a great shot at getting through to the quarterfinals if they keep Life close and play cleanly against the Dragons and Virginia Tech.
POOL E – Michigan, South Carolina, UCLA, Wisconsin
UCLA is the favorite. Michigan, South Carolina and Wisconsin are all about as good as each other. If the Bruins can avoid an upset – they fell to Michigan last year – they’ll win the pool. I don’t think the rest of the scores will be drastic enough in anyone’s favor, though, for a second team to come out of this group.
POOL F – Clemson, Dartmouth, Temple, Utah
Dartmouth is the favorite, but Utah is a complete wildcard. No one has won a more impressive tournament this spring than Utah, which took the Las Vegas Invitational to qualify for this weekend. But the Utes had to be near flawless to pull it off. If they are again, they can win this pool. But if they don’t, I don’t think they have the firepower to pile up enough points to get through otherwise.
QUARTERFINALS & BEYOND
That makes my final eight something like this – Arkansas State, Cal, Kutztown, Army, Life, Penn State, UCLA and Dartmouth. They’ll all be reshuffled and reseeded 1-8, so it’s tough to picture playoff match-ups, but whoever finishes second in Pool A will be seeded in the bottom two. So there should be a pretty big meeting in the quarterfinals.
Ultimately, I think Life and Arkansas State are best poised to hoist the Pete Dawkins Trophy this year, though you’d have to be a fool to count out Cal or Kutztown. So while I don’t feel incredibly strong attaching my name to a pick to win it all, if there were a sports book nearby, I’d plop a little money down on Life.