A Life-Changing Moment; Alabama Wins LAI
A Life-Changing Moment; Alabama Wins LAI
The University of Alabama surprised many, perhaps even themselves, in winning the LA Invitational men's college bracket Saturday.
The final, played in Dignity Health Sports Park in front of the day's LA Sevens crowd, was an exciting affair, with Alabama coming back from a 12-0 deficit to win 19-12 over New Mexico Highlands University.
NMHU continues to bring strong sevens performances, and were partly inspired by the fact that one of their alumni, Kevon Williams, was suiting up for the USA that weekend.
For players and coaches alike, the victory for Alabama was about having the right mental approach.
"We’ve been working a lot on the mental side of the game with so many of our practices being rained out," said Alabama Head Coach Eddie Buckner. "That’s also been a really weak area of our play—we get down on ourselves due to mistakes and choose not to stick with the game plan. So for us, this was a chance to play good rugby with teams we’ve never seen before while also choosing to stay positive when things aren’t going the way we expected or hoped."
The team's mantra was: Stick to the System.
"We certainly did not expect to make it all the way to final," said Alabama captain Caleb Strum. "But after we beat Northeastern, which is a solid, very structured team with some good players, we kind of sat down and were all talking and we kind of said 'hey, we are firing on all cylinders and we're doing what we love most and we're doing it well. We might be able to win this.'"
They went 4-0 and that set them up for a semifinal with Western Michigan, which was an intense, physical game, and that's where that mental strength came through.
Breathe. It's Supposed To Be Fun
"We did a team building exercise," said Strum. "We focused on our breathing and using that to regain our composure. If one of us gets beat or we make a mistake, we breathe and remember why we're here. It's not just me out there. We're with the same guys we hang out with in Tuscaloosa every day."
It worked against WMU and it worked in the final in the stadium under the lights. NMHU looked barely stoppable after scoring two tries and leading 12-0.
But Alabama stopped NMHU's next surge, and then started to come back.
Matt Pikowski contested a kick nicely, and got there just in front of a Vatos player. He chipped ahead, chased it down, and linked up with his support and they fed Jesse Boone. Boone kicked on again, Pikowski, still on his horse, chased it down.
It was a somewhat unconventional try, but one where the players reacted perfectly to stick a dagger in the NMHU momentum.
"It looked to me more like a desperate move," said Buckner. "I haven’t asked what picture the guys were seeing when they did it. Pikowski told me that he just decided that he was going to beat his opponent to the ball and took off then dove for the ball before they could touch it down. It worked out well for us for sure."
That try got the crowd on its feet, and Alabama scored two more tries in the second half. Strum set up Boone for one, and freshman Paulie Malito sneaked around for another.
For Strum, this was a magical time.
"It was a kind of a check to the nervous system," he told Goff Rugby Report. "It wasn’t just a win, it was a completely surreal moment. We had some of our family and friends there, but we were also playing in front of thousands of people, people from other nations, and they were celebrating us."
"Going into the final our goal was to we tried to focus on what we could control," added Buckner. "We can’t control how fast or strong they are but we can control how connected and flat we are on defense. We can control how we communicate and when we increase pressure."
Buckner did a Strength and Conditioning internship with the USA 7s in the spring of 2015 and that knowledge has helped him a grea deal.
"I learned there from both Mike Friday and Chris Brown that you have to do the basics well to be successful at 7s," he said. "We wanted to do the basics well—tackling, rucking, and passing—then just trust the system knowing that it works when you use it if you’re doing the basics well. So we just tried to control our pace when we moved up on defense. We kept it slow and steady and stayed connected so that we had support. We lost that connection and they scored twice; we just weren’t linked together. Thankfully, they stayed calm and just stuck with the plan and it worked out in our favor."
Pikowski's try was a game-changer, while Boone was aggressive on defense and kicked well. Cook was strong over the ball and stole the ball repeatedly, and Brune made a huge try-saving, and possibly game-saving tackle, in the final.
And Strum? Well he chalked it all up to Harrison Dulgarian. "I feel this about all of the guys; we wouldn't have won without any of them. But Harrison's the guy who made the trip happen. He's the most humble guy and we couldn't have done it without him.
Buckner might say the same about Strum.
"He played his best match in the final; unselfish with the ball, great support on line breaks, and just smart rugby overall."
That was because of that approach—an approach focused on the brotherhood within the team.
"This was one of the most enlightening moemnts in my rugby life," said Strum. "This was the first weekend where I had the feeling that I don’t care what happens; let’s have fun. I am here for my best friends, so let’s just have fun, and it showed. And since then not one of us has shaken the feeling of pure happiness.
"It was life-changing and it exemplified what rugby is meant to be."