Article by Erik Geib | USA Rugby
LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Eighteen of the top men's & women's 7s programs qualified for the 2016 USA Rugby Emirates Airline Men's & Women's Club 7s National Championships over the weekend, increasing the number of qualified teams to 23.
Debut entrants to the championships include the Austin Huns (Red River Men's #1 Seed), Austin Valkyries (Red River Women's #2 Seed), Charlotte Rugby (South Women's #2 Seed), Little Rock Stormers (Red River Men's #1 Seed), Rugby Utah (Frontier Men's #1 Seed), and Tempe Ninjas (Pacific South #2 Seed). Those six clubs join twelve others who have a combined total of 75 appearances and 7 national championship titles.
The Pacific South Competitive Region is sending Belmont Shore Rugby (Pacific South Men's #1 Seed) and the Santa Monica Dolphins (Pacific South Men's #2 Seed) back to the championships for the third year in a row. The Pacific Rugby Premiership rivals finished 1-2 yet again, and will look to remind everyone of the region's strength at this year's finals event. 2015 was the first time since 1992 that a team from Southern California didn't finish in the top 5 of the men's event., and the region has produced 11 of the 31 previous men's champions (including 3 by Belmont Shore, 6 by Old Mission Beach Athletic, and 2 by Riverside Rugby). On the women's side, the powerhouse San Diego Surfers qualified again as the #1 seed, and will bring the Tempe Ninjas with them after they finished second. The region is equally impressive in producing women's champions, as the Surfers have won 2 of the 5 official women's championships.
In the Frontier Competitive Region, Rugby Utah turned its de facto qualification into the official men's #1 seed, despite a 4th-place finish at the hometown Pioneer 7s event. The Kansas City Blues came in second, but it was good enough to qualify thanks to a huge Glendale Raptors upset of their rivals, the Denver Barbarians. The elimination of Denver snaps its record 15-straight national championship appearance streak, and leaves the Denver-based championship with only the Glendale Raptors' women's program to help push local interest. The Blues enter on the back of two successful runs in consecutive years, capturing the bronze medals (3rd) in 2014 and the Bowl Championship (9th) in 2015.
In the Red River Competitive Region, the American Rugby Pro Training Center (ARPTC) finished off its trio of first-place finishes to re-qualify for Nationals alongside the second-place Austin Valkyries. The ARPTC is the defending women's national championship program, and will be hungry to win the title again in just its second year of competitive club 7s. On the men's side of the bracket, Dallas Rugby's tournament title wasn't enough to send the Reds back to Nationals, as the Austin Huns captured the Red River Championship with a second-place finish. The Little Rock Stormers, who had entered the event tied in series points with the Huns, qualified for Denver by virtue of a semi-final appearance.
Down in the South Competitive Region, Atlanta Old White captured the men's #1 seed to make its 7th national championship appearance, defeating New Orleans Rugby 28-5 in the South Championship. New Orleans also qualifies for the national championship event by virtue of its second-place finish. The women's bracket of the South Championship saw Orlando Rugby once again capture the South CR title, defeating also-qualified Charlotte Rugby in the women's final. Orlando made its debut in last year's event and will look to finish better this year with an additional season of sevens play.
The Mid-Atlantic Competitive Region will once again send the Scion Sirens (Women's #1 Seed) and Northern Virginia Rugby (Women's #2 Seed) to the national championships after both programs successfully finished atop the four-leg Mid-Atlantic series. For Northern Virginia ("NOVA"), the qualification means it is one of only two programs to have qualified for every women's championship event so far (along with the San Diego Surfers; the Berkely All Blues could also claim that status if they qualify next week). Traditionally one of the strongest regions for women's rugby, the Mid-Atlantic has yet to produce a 7s national champion, though NOVA finished 2nd in 2013. Like the Frontier Region, the Mid-Atlantic's men's division had three teams battling it out until the end. Rocky Gorge Rugby needed to finish five points clear of Northern Virginia Rugby ("NOVA"; Men's #2 Seed) to make it to Denver, but came up just short as it lost the final qualifying final to the Schuylkill River Exiles (Men's #1 Seed). NOVA and Schuylkill River have a combined 24 national championship appearances between them, and both programs have high expectations heading to Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
American Rugby Pro
In their first season of competitive club 7s, the American Rugby Pro Training Center (ARPTC) won the national championship by defeating a tough Seattle Saracens' women's program. Coached by former Women's National Team coach Jules McCoy, the ARPTC heads to Denver with a resolve to defend its title and a will to continue showcasing top talent for the Women's Eagles. Their pool will include 2014 national finalists Old Blue, who handily won the Atlantic North CR in 2016, as well as Charlotte Rugby (South #2) and a to-be-determined Midwest #2 seed.
Atlanta Old White
Atlanta Old White captured the South Championship yet again, and makes its 7th appearance at Club 7s. Overall, Old White has the 16th-most appearances at Club 7s (17th-most if 1823 qualifies from the Midwest again), and is arguably the South's most successful 7s program. In their last appearance (2014), Atlanta finished in last place with a disappointing 0-6 record. They'll be looking to correct that in 2016 against a pool that includes a to-be-determined Midwest #1 seed, 2015 bronze medalists Mystic River Rugby, and the powerful Santa Monica Dolphins.
The professionalization efforts of the Huns have born early fruit, as the Huns booked their first trip to the national championships after a first-place finish in the Red River qualifying series. What type of team they will bring is unknown, as the Red River region has traditionally struggled at 7s on the national stage, and their pool is doing them no favors as they're paired with a pair of strong second seeds in the Kansas City Blues and New Orleans Rugby. The Pacific North #1 seed (TBD) will also be joining the pool, which has been the 8-time national champion Seattle Saracens on more than one occasion. The Huns remain a club on the rise, and could be one of the dark horses in this year's event.
The Austin Valkyries nearly made the national championship event last year (as the Austin Knights), but were blocked by an emerging ARPTC squad and a lack of a second seed for the Red River Competitive Region. This year, Austin put in quality work in achieving its goal of going to Denver, and may yet emerge as one of the top teams in the event after playing the national champion ARPTC team throughout its qualifying series. They join a pool featuring two WPL sides (the two-champion Surfers and reigning WPL 15s champions, Glendale), as well as a to-be-determined Pacific North #3 team.
Belmont Shore Rugby
The boys from Long Beach are back for the 10th year in a row, and they'll be eager to forget their unusual 13th place finish in Des Moines last year. Prior to 2015, Belmont Shore had finished in the top 5 for 7 years in a row, including three national championship wins (2009, 2011, 2012). Overall, Belmont Shore is one of the top 7s programs in Club 7s history, and their places in the record book reflect that. In addition to its 3 championship wins (3rd-most), it has 5 cup final appearances (5th-most), the second-longest consecutive appearance streak (10; 2nd-most), the second-best winning percentage of any club with at least 30 matches played (67.11%), 51 event wins (5th-most), and 15 overall event appearances (6th-most). They join a pool with the upstart Rugby Utah NDA program, the Mid-Atlantic's NOVA powerhouse, and the debuting Little Rock Stormers.
The Charlotte Rugby Club's women's program has burst onto the national scene this year, with an appearance in both the 15s and 7s national playoffs. With a second-place finish to the South Champion, Orlando, Charlotte qualified for the Club 7s National Championship for the first time. Once they arrive, they'll be forced to acclimate to the national scene quickly, as they're in a pool with favorites ARPTC and Old Blue, as well as the to-be-determined Midwest #2 seed.
Kansas City Blues
The Blues return to Club 7s for the third year in a row, and enter the tournament having bested longtime powers (and 2015 runner-up) the Denver Barbarians to get there. Riding a strong youth and academy program, Kansas City has become a team to look out for at the top of the bracket, riding into Denver on the back of a 3rd-place finish in 2014, and an undefeated Day 2 in 2015 to become Bowl Champions (9th place). With their spot in this year's event secured, the Blues are now in sole possession of 9th place in the all-time appearances list with 12 overall appearances, and they also have the 8th-most number of cup quarter-final appearances, as well as the 12th-most wins overall among historic participants.
Little Rock Stormers
After several strong showings in 15s the last few years, the Stormers' 7s program is now on the national stage. Bolstered by strong coaching, quality facilities, and an increasingly-deep pool of Arkansas-based talent like Matt Guest, the Stormers join the ARPTC to make Little Rock one of only a handful of cities to send two teams to the national championships. Former Arkansas State players in the squad will see some of their old rivals from BYU, as the Stormers are in a pool with the Frontier Champions, Rugby Utah, as well as longtime powers Belmont Shore and NOVA - who enter the tournament with 32 previous appearances between them.
New Orleans Rugby
New Orleans ("NOLA") has made it to Club 7s four times in the past six seasons, and will look to crack into the cup quarter-finals for the first time in 2016. NOLA has made their name largely with Louisiana-based players, including a large number of LSU players, and is not a team to overlook. They were unable to qualify in 2015 when the South only had 1 seed to the national championship, but they return this year with a number of qualifying finals appearances and a deep southern grit to succeed. Their pool features a to-be-determined Pacific North #1 (which has been Seattle many times in years past), as well as the Kansas City Blues and the upstart Austin Huns.
Northern Virginia Rugby
One of the most storied programs in Club 7s history, Northern Virginia ("NOVA") returns to the national championships for the first time in 3 years. 2016 marks their 19th appearance in the premier event, which is a total good enough for 2nd-most all-time. NOVA is one of only 14 clubs to have won the national championship, which they did in 1996, and the club also has records for the 2nd-most cup quarter-final appearances, 2nd-most overall wins (64), 4th-best overall winning percentage (65.98%), 3rd-most cup semi-final appearances, and 4th-most cup finals appearances. They additionally had a streak of 8 straight appearances between 1994 and 2001, which is the 5th-best such streak of all-time. To get to Denver, they finished in the top four of all four of their qualifiers, including one qualifying tournament win, and they'll face fellow powers Belmont Shore along with Rugby Utah and the Little Rock Stormers in their pool at the national championship.
Northern Virginia Rugby
Heading into this season, Northern Virginia Rugby ("NOVA") was one of only four teams to have appeared at all five previous women's 7s national championships. With Philadelphia Rugby's inability to qualify this season, that exclusive club is now down to three members (two if Berkeley fails to qualify). NOVA hasn't relied on just showing up, however, as indicated by their 2nd-place finish in 2013. In fact, they've never finished outside of the top six teams, and last season (2015) was only the first time they didn't reach a cup semi-final. NOVA enters this year's event as the Mid-Atlantic #2 and will face Boston Rugby as well as a pair of to-be-determined foes from Pacific North and Midwest Competitive Regions.
Orlando Rugby returns to the national championships as South Champions, and will look to improve upon their 15th-place finish from Des Moines in 2015. The women of central Florida have been absolutely dominant so far this 7s season, seeing little opposition to their winning ways in all four qualifying events - all of which they took first place in. The national stage should prove more difficult, however, and Orlando will look to navigate its way past the Scion Sirens, a to-be-determined Pacific North #2 seed, and the Tempe Ninjas in its pool at this year's national championship.
Rugby Utah has been the surprise of the summer, but rugby insiders know that Utah has always been full of rugby talent just waiting for the right team to assemble. This year's Rugby Utah National Development Academy (NDA) squad may just be that team. Built off an area that has seen deep talent development in places such as BYU, the University of Utah, Park City Haggis, and the Provo Steelers, the Rugby Utah combined team raced its way to two tournament titles in the three-leg Frontier qualifying series, upsetting the Kansas City Blues and Denver Barbarians at their own home tournaments. With qualification ensured by virtue of its semi-final appearance, Rugby Utah slipped in the final qualifying event, but will have plenty of chances to show if it's for real in a pool that includes longtime powers NOVA and Belmont Shore, as well as the debuting Little Rock Stormers.
San Diego Surfers
The San Diego Surfers are no stranger to the USA Rugby Club 7s National Championships, having won the event twice previously. The Surfers are also one of two teams (three, if Berkeley qualifies) to have made an appearance at every edition of the women's event. Much like other longtime-stalwarts NOVA, the Surfers have never finished outside the top six, and their current win total of 23 overall wins puts them second all-time - only behind their WPL rivals, Berkeley. This season, they've been without regular head coach Richie Walker, who has moved on to become Women's National Team coach, and will be in Rio for the Olympic Games while the Surfers are in Denver. The Surfers have the player depth to overcome their coaching shift, however, including Eagle standouts like Lauren Daly, who was recently with the Women's 15s World Cup squad in France in 2014. The Surfers' pool features WPL opponents the Glendale Raptors, the debuting Austin Valkyries, and a to-be-determined Pacific North #3 seed. Having played in a Pacific North qualifying tournament as an outside entrant, the Surfers hope to already have a feel for who they'll face.
Santa Monica Dolphins
The Santa Monica Dolphins will make their appearance at the Club 7s National Championships for the third year in a row, surviving a well-contested 7s series that once again forced them to outlast long-time powers OMBAC (Old Mission Beach Athletic Club). Although the Dolphins came up short of surpassing its local rival, Belmont Shore, their talent and athleticism will make them a threat to anyone - including Belmont Shore - as they enter the national championship event. Santa Monica is one only a few clubs to have never had a losing record at the national championship event, and they enter a pool with 2015 bronze medalists Mystic River Rugby, South Champions Atlanta Old White, and a to-be-determined Midwest #1 seed.
Schuylkill River Exiles
Schuylkill River enters the national championships for the 7th time in 8 years, and had to battle through a brutal Mid-Atlantic qualifying series to the event yet again. The Exiles made a concentrated effort this year to build up their depth, and they've seen an influx of talent through the launching of their U23 program. Coached by former National Team assistant Chris Ryan, the men from Philadelphia are always a team ready to win, and recent results in the Mid-Atlantic indicate they may be peaking at just the right time. Having reached the cup final in 2011, it would not be surprising to see Schuylkill River go deep again this year, but first they'll have to escape a pool that includes favorites Old Blue of New York, as well as tough to-be-determined second seeds from the strong Pacific North and Midwest competitive regions. If they escape what may well be the 'pool of death,' the Exiles may yet win it all.
Scion's transition into a National Development Academy (NDA) has seen its ascendancy escalate quickly. After a pair of disappointing efforts in previous championship appearances, Scion enters the 2016 national championship event as one of the favorites. The Sirens finished atop all four Mid-Atlantic qualifying events, and hope that their success will lead them into their first-ever cup quarter-final appearance at this year's championship. Bolstered by a year-round training environment, and Eagle standouts such as Kimber Rozier, Stacey Bridges, and Samantha Pankey, Scion is a deep 7s program that may challenge fellow NDA favorites the ARPTC for the championship. The Sirens' pool includes a to-be-determined Pacific North #2 seed, the debuting Tempe Ninjas, and the South Champions, Orlando Rugby.
Tempe makes its 7s championship debut at the 2016 USA Rugby Emirates Airline National Championship, and is a wild-card for other participants. Tempe has a strong 15s program but is virtually unknown in 7s outside its region, and could surprise any opponent that overlooks it. Emerging from a competition that includes perennial contenders the San Diego Surfers, Tempe knows what championship 7s looks like, and will enter the tournament looking to prove itself to any doubters. Their pool will include the Scion Sirens NDA program, Orlando Rugby, and a to-be-determined Pacific North #2 seed.