Men's Club 7s National Championship Preview

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Sixteen men’s teams have qualified for the 2017 Club 7s National Championship, but only one will raise the Cup Sunday, Aug. 13 at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn. The sevens action begins Saturday, Aug. 12, and 86 of the total 96 matches will air live on The Rugby Channel, while the remaining 10 will games be available on TRC for re-air.

Pool A

Rugby Utah Selects, Bulldog Rugby, Beltway Elite and Austin Huns

The Selects of Rugby Utah have a legitimate case to be labeled the team to beat this weekend. After all, the squad won last year’s Club 7s National Championship in the National Development Academy’s first-ever appearance. Rugby Utah’s attack ought to be as relentless as it was in 2016 when Club 7s Dream Team member Jared Whippy made winning restarts look easy, and tournament MVP Don Pati ran circles around defenses. Both are back with the team in 2017, and are joined by Jared’ brother Joshua, as well as University of Utah All-Americans Chad Gough and Gabe Ruflin.

Considering the Bulldogs had to battle Old Blue, Mystic River and the New York Athletic Club for two Atlantic North spots to Nationals, few outside the Bulldog camp expected the team from Connecticut to finish in the top-two of that four-team field. However, respected rugby mind Stephen Lewis took over as head coach at the beginning of the summer, and the team’s results continuously improved as the summer progressed. Lewis’ impact has no doubt been felt, but it also helps having capped Eagles Tim Stanfill and Lorenzo Thomas, as well as collegiate standouts Corey Jones (University of Arkansas) and Jihad Khabir (American International College).

The Beltway Elite, a Mid-Atlantic select side, had an impressive first run out this summer during regional qualifiers. The team traded blows with the Schuylkill River Exiles all summer before eventually taking the Mid-Atlantic’s top seed. Many on the squad have represented the Capital Selects in the past, and come from various East Coast college programs, including Delaware, Penn State and Towson.

The Huns didn’t show much of a hangover following its Division I National Championship victory over NYAC in 15s this past June. Some of its starpower in 15s, like Todd Clever, Hanco Germishuys and Peter Malcom, aren’t playing sevens this summer, but the team is still littered with talent. 15s captain Lomani Tongotongo always requires multiple defenders to bring down the hard-charging center, and sevens captain Zinzan Elan-Puttick can beat defenses with his feet or a well-timed pass. Austin has also recruited Kutztown winger and Collegiate All-American Vetekina Malafu.

Pool B

Old Blue, Metropolis, Dallas Reds and Washington Athletic Club

The women of Old Blue must be disappointed not to make the 16-team women’s field at Nationals, but the men of Old Blue qualified once again and have an opportunity to win their third Club 7s National Championship.

Playing out of the incredibly competitive Atlantic North, Old Blue was the only team in the region to win multiple qualifying events. The men from New York will also arrive at Nationals with momentum, having taken first-place in the fourth and final Atlantic North tournament. Old Blue also received a boost when club-mate and Eagles captain Nate Augspurger rejoined the team after the completion of the National Team’s summer test window.

Metropolis, while continuing to be a top-flight 15s club, hasn’t played in a National Championship tournament in sevens since 2003. However, the men of Minneapolis were extremely motivated to qualify this summer with the event taking place right in their backyard. Still a relatively unknown in terms of sevens, teams in Pool B ought to recognize the fact Metropolis beat out a very talented Columbus Rugby squad for the Midwest’s No. 2 seed to Nationals.

After ending a 17-year Club 7s National Championship appearance drought in 2015, the Dallas Reds have qualified for the event for a second time in three years. It didn’t come easy, however, as the Reds, Austin Blacks and Austin Huns were all tied for first-place in the Red River heading into the region’s fourth and final qualifier. Dallas did more than enough when it counted most, though, and won the final event to take Red River’s No. 1 seed. Brendan Pahulu has played well consistently and longtime Reds stalwart Kelly Kolberg is still one of the Texas’ most dangerous ball carriers.

Washington Athletic Club is making its first National Championship appearance, but the team has an awfully close resemblance to the Seattle Saracens after the club decided not to compete in sevens this summer. In fact, half of the 2016 Seattle Saracens team that placed sixth at Nationals is on this year’s Washington Athletic side. Those players from the Sarries outfit includes Eagles Mike Palefau and Peter Tiberio. Throw in additional Eagles Aladdin Schirmer, Shalom Suniula and Kevin Swiryn, as well as former University of Washington football standout Psalm Wooching, and you’ve got a team capable of doing some serious damage in Minneapolis.

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Pool C

Denver Barbarians, Belmont Shore, Charlotte and Schuylkill River Exiles

A third-place finished in the 2016 Frontier Region behind eventual Cup Finalists the Kansas City Blues and Rugby Utah left one of the country’s best sevens teams out of last year’s Club 7s National Championship. This summer, the Denver Barbarians fought off the Blues to finish second behind Rugby Utah in the region’s race for qualification. There are few weaknesses in the Barbarians lineup that includes Eagles Sevens danger man Kevon Williams, former University of Oklahoma All-American Michael Al-Jiboori, one-time University of Tennessee footballer Devrin Young and the club’s unquestioned leader Maximo de Achaval.

One of the club scene’s most decorated sevens teams, Belmont Shore, continues to stay near the top of the heap when it comes to the code’s supremacy. Longtime on-field standout Peter Sio now strictly leads the team from the sideline, while a mixture of Belmont veterans and newcomers helped the club win three of the four Pacific South qualifying events to earn the region’s No. 1 seed. Former USA Eagles Sevens star Justin Boyd can still fly, and Pono Haitsuka has represented the U.S. in sevens, as well. In terms of youth, Sione Masoe has been one of Belmont Shore’s brightest players, and Notre Dame College All-American Marcus Tupuola gives the team from Long Beach, Calif. another dangerous weapon to utilize.

After back-to-back Club 7s National Championship appearances in 2014 and 2015, Charlotte was disappointed not to make the cut last summer. The club makes its return to Nationals this weekend, though, as the South’s No. 1 seed thanks to a victorious afternoon at the July 22 regional championship. Charlotte Rugby might not have a ton of Eagle caps hanging in its clubhouse, but the team does have a superstar in Matt Hughston.

A second-place finish in the Mid-Atlantic sevens series earned the Schuylkill River Exiles its seventh National Championship appearance. The incredibly consistent club is hoping to fare better this weekend than it did in last summer. The Exiles followed up a solid 6th-place finish in 2015 with a disappointing 14th-place finish in 2016. While not the finish it wanted last year, two of its losses were by three points or less, and the addition of Collegiate All-American Alex Faison-Donahoe could swing close game fortunes in its favor.

Pool D

Chicago Lions, Life West Gladiators, Santa Monica Dolphins and Optimus Rugby

A hiccup in the initial Midwest qualifier after a long 15s season was the only regional event the Chicago Lions didn’t win on their way to a 15th Club 7s National Chanpionship appearance. The Lions’ 14th appearance last year, aided by a Dream Team performance by Nick Feakes, saw the team finish fourth in the country. It’s easy to forsee Chicago get back to the Cup Semifinals with the addition of a number of standouts from D1A programs, and capped Eagles JP Eloff and Mike Ziegler.

Life West played in its first and only Club 7s National Champions in 2015, and struggled to a 15th-place finish. The South Bay Area club has come a long way since then, moving up to Division I in 15s, and continues to harvest some of the best young talent on the West Coast. The Gladiators beat the likes of the East Palo Alto Razorbacks and Olympic Club for the top NorCal seed heading into the July 29 Pacific North Championship, where Life West beat an Eagle-filled Washington Athletic Club in the Final.

Qualification to Nationals out of the Pacific South doesn’t come easily, yet Santa Monica has managed to earn a Championship berth for a fourth consecutive summer. After shrugging off a slow start to the summer, the Dolphins finished second behind Belmont Shore in the second and third SoCal competitions before knocking off the Long Beach side in the final qualifier, and fending off Old Mission Beach Athletic Club and the Orange County Ravens for the Pacific South’s No. 2 seed. Pago Haini, who earned a cap with the Eagles Sevens earlier this year, is a powerful runner to keep an eye on.

Optimus’ first summer as an elite training group out of the Atlanta area was a successful one. The squad tied for first with the Legion of Doom in the South Region’s Georgia division, which earned it a spot in the South 7s Championship field. At the regional championship, Optimus reached the Final where it lost to Charlotte, but still booked flights to Minneapois for its second-place efforts. The team will unfortunately be without key figure Gerson Blaise, though. The speedster spent the summer with Optimus a year after scoring seven tries at the 2016 Club 7s National Championships with Atlanta Old White, but his call-up to play for the USA Islanders against Saracens keeps him off Optimus’ Championship lineup.