The USA Rugby Club 7s Championships kick off on Saturday in Minneapolis, and we're taking a look at the teams you might want to watch a little more closely.
As usual, this is a combination of established clubs and teams formed just for the summer. Often the summer-only teams look really good on paper, but it's the seasoned clubs that win because of their unity honed through the years. Even if those clubs make one or two personnel additions, their new players have a lot easier time joining an established group.
Still, we like all kinds of teams, from the groups that don't win at the highest level in 15s but make the summer pay off to the familiar names that are always in contention to the upstart squads looking for a breakthrough result.
Here are five men's teams worth watching:
Washington Athletic ClubWell, you knew we'd notice this one anyway, because of this editor's work with the WAC on the Scholz and Sorensen Awards. But it's worth noting, anyway. The Washington Athletic Club is a sports club in downtown Seattle and has a long history of supporting elite athletes. With many members of the Seattle Saracens members and working out or rehabbing there, the WAC made the next logical step to sponsor an Olympic (i.e., 7s) rugby team.
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They've got some familiar faces in Mike Palefau, Aladdin Schirmer, Shalom Suniula, Peter Tiberio, Will Rasileka, Psalm Wooching, and former Arkansas State standout Paul Benade. But it all goes through the leadership of Palefau.
Optimus RugbyCompletely and utterly a team made for the summer. Their players are fairly young, mostly from the South, and it's a smart attempt to find the right combination of talent out of that region to compete at the national level. Some crucial veteran leadership (Nathan Rogers) and good coaching from Ronn Omondi makes them a team you've never heard of that might be worth remembering.
Rugby UtahWhile made for 7s, Rugby Utah are an established team as the defending champs. They won the Denver 7s, play a very exciting and open style, and boy are they stacked with talent. Basically they take a couple veteran winners (Don Pati, for example) and surround them with some of the best talent from the University of Utah and BYU.
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The Utes' best players were Chad Gough and Gabe Ruflin, and they're on the Rugby Utah squad. Josh Whippy, Zach Webber, and Jackson Kaka are excellent BYU players, and they're also on the team. Havea Unufe is someone who can break a game open. They have already shown they can put the pieces together.
Chicago LionsThe Lions have a well-organized summer program and bring in players that have talent but also fit their style of play. The process has worked well and functioned nicely as a recruiting vehicle. This year, they've got young players with USA experience such as JP Eloff and Mike Ziegeler. They've also got veterans who know how to win games in Eddie Bluemel and Jordan Highberger, and they add in some really good undergraduate or just-graduated talent.
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Tyler Sousley played 7s for the USA U20s and is still at Indiana. Jake Hidalgo is a big try-scorer from Indiana. Nick Feakes is a playmaker from Lindenwood. And Tom Kacor is a No. 8 from Western Michigan who can sometimes play flyhalf and whose skillset could make him a breakout star at this week's tournament.
Oh, and former Eagle David Fee coaches them.
This is another team put together for the summer, and you wonder if the whole is quite the sum of its parts yet. Their veteran leaders are Eric Lalley and Fili Botitu. Now, Botitu can score a try out of nothing, but he needs to use his teammates, and it's a disparate group. Tim Stanfill is a capped Eagle, and he and Mike Nelson won national titles with Botitu on Old Puget Sound (and then Seattle Saracens). But Stanfill is kind of a straight-ahead, I'm-going-to-score player. So, too, is Lorenzo Thomas out of Lindenwood (also capped by the USA).
Jihad Khabir is a brilliant 7s prospect with a smooth running style that makes people miss, but he has to work with his support, too. Can Nelson and Adrian Ray (like Khabir, a standout at AIC) keep everyone looking in the same direction? Do they have enough power to go with the speed and elusiveness?
This is a fascinating team, because it has the talent to win it all but could fall apart if it doesn't find the right glue.