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One of the biggest DIA collegiate matches of the early season is this weekend in Tucson, Ariz. when Arizona welcomes #3 Saint Mary’s College to its home opener. Playing under the lights on Friday at William David Sitton Field, this contest will be invaluable to both sides playing against a strong club so early in the season.
Each team has one game under its belt with decidingly different results. The defending DIA National Champions, St. Mary’s, played Pacific Rugby Premiership runner-up San Francisco-Golden Gate last Saturday and was promptly blasted by the more experienced side. In defeat, St. Mary’s head coach Tim O’Brien learned a lot about his team and what it will take to move forward. The match against Golden Gate proved that ball security is paramount.
“We need to protect our ball,” O’Brien said. “We ended up having 27 turnovers. When you can’t control contact, you can’t control the ball and you got some problems.”
The St. Mary’s club has changed a lot since last season with losing four All-Americans in prop Ryan Pratt, hooker Mike O’Neill, outside center Kingsley McGowan, fullback Cooper Maloney to graduation. Coach O’Brien’s philosophy is to “play an open style. We want to be tactically astute, but we have some got some pretty new players filling in some big shoes. We have guys that are stepping up, a couple freshmen and guys coming up from the third team and playing on the first team.”
To be successful, St. Mary’s will need to have everyone play as a team and buy into the program Coach O’Brien is teaching. All-Americans Dino Waldren, Holden Yungert, and Dylan Audsley return to make a solid core of senior leadership. Joining them is senior captain Kevin O’Connor, blue collar locks, Mike Tillson and Henry Hall, #8 Vili Helu, and according to O’Brien, his best all-round player in outside center Mike McCarthy. Additionally, attacking fullback Nick Schlobohm returns this season from injury.
The goal of the season for St. Mary’s is to bring home another title, but O’Brien does admit it will be a hard task to repeat again. “We don’t have the talent that we had last year, so it’s going to take some great contributions by our players that really buy into our system. If we can match the performance from last year, we will have a lot of good things and I’m very proud of the guys.”
As for this weekend’s match vs. Arizona, O’Brien said, “I assume that Arizona is going to be one of the most stacked teams in the country. They must have extraordinary depth of talent for everything that I have heard from people around rugby. It will be a great challenge. A lot of California kids go to those Arizona schools, they are very good ball players. You have some very good ball players adding layers of depth to some great rugby schools like Arizona and Arizona State. It’s no easy deal when we go out to play. We don’t have a soft team on our schedule, so we will really have our hands full.”
Expectations are high this season for Arizona as it steps into its second year of DIA rugby. With a nation-leading five invitees to the Men’s Junior All-American Camp at Lindenwood University in January, the Wildcats are poised to make an impact this season.
In its first game of the year, Arizona demolished Grand Canyon University, 59-3, with a total team effort having scored nine tries by seven players. Head coach Sean Duffy stated, “It was a culmination of our two-a-days preseason camp that we ran from January 5th to the 9th... The big takeaways were a good attacking mindset, good decisions in the breakdown, and renewed emphasis defensively, which especially in the second half made a big difference.”
The Arizona squad is roughly intact from last season with about 85% of the roster returning this year. Duffy describes his coaching as “a slow process and playing an up-tempo style, but then building into structure around that so we have a good platform to attack form. At the same time, with this team now taking the next step, a lot of these guys are sophomores and juniors and they are learning to attack in better spots. We’re taking the next step as a group with these young guys and it’s really exciting to be a part of it.”
The playmakers that will provide the excitement on the field will be senior captain Cesar Davila, junior vice-captain/flyhalf Kyle Rogers, and senior loosehead prop Cam Hudson. Davila is the lynchpin for the Wildcats being the leader of the club as he sets the tone in the breakdown and on defense. Rogers, who had 14 points as the kicker in the game against GCU, controls the flow of the game and leads the backs. Hudson has embraced his role as a senior leading the guys in the preseason when it comes to strength and conditioning. Additionally, four-time High School All-American hooker Steve Branham, who already scored a try versus GCU, is expected to make an impressive impact in his freshman season.
This weekend’s match against Saint Mary’s holds great importance to Coach Duffy. “When I first got here, Saint Mary’s is the very first game that I coached at Arizona. I got here January 5th, 2014 and we played Saint Mary’s on January 9th, so I knew maybe half the names and that was a really good Saint Mary’s team. I’m really interested to see how far we have come since then.”
The objective of this season for Arizona is two-fold, a DIA National Championship and a CRC title. Duffy said, “Beating a team like Saint Mary’s is what we need to do to reach those goals. For us, this is a big game for that. It’s early in the year, we want to see where we are. I don’t relish playing easy games to start, I’m not a big fan of easing in. I think we need to be tested, we need to see where we stand and have things to be fixed.”