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Teams' Buildup to Varsity Cup Varies

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Teams' Buildup to Varsity Cup Varies

Army and Navy battled to a 27-22 Army win this past weekend. Both will compete in the Varsity Cup April 9. Colleen McCloskey photo.

The month of April is around the corner and that means playoff time in college rugby, including the Varsity Cup.

Now, while the Varsity Cup is its own self-contained knockout tournament, for the teams involved, this is what they’ve been working for. Even though the seedings and matchups have been decided long ago, and there’s no tense qualification procedure, the teams involved have been working hard to prepare.

Here’s a look at who is playing whom, and how they have built toward the first round on April 9.


BYU at Arizona State

BYU has been almost unstoppable. They are big, powerful, and while you can argue that they tend to be older than most college rugby teams in this country, several of their best best performers this season are some of their younger players - Calvin Whiting, Zach Webber, and Kevin Schofield. BYU has beaten St. Mary’s twice, Central Washington, Army, and Air Force, and by an average score of 60-18. This week the Cougars take on San Diego State and Utah to get ready.

Arizona State finished 1-4 in the PAC Rugby Conference, but logged a nicely-taken win over San Diego State. The Sun Devils will, wisely, rest up this week before hosting the Cougars.


Penn State at Dartmouth

Penn State's preparation has been intense, with games against NYAC, Navy, Indiana, and the Toronto Nomads - two wins and two losses, with one of those losses a close one. It's a good, methodical build for Penn State, which went 6-1 in Rugby East last fall. Dartmouth has been active, too, and you've got to give them credit for facing tough opposition out of the Ivy League. But ... the games themselves have not gone Dartmouth's way. They were close with Navy, but got slammed by Army. And, like a couple of other teams in this article, they've been shifting between 7s and 15s. Overall, Penn State looks the stronger.


Clemson at Arkansas State

This matchup was the big upset of the Varsity Cup last year, but much has changed since then. Notably, both teams changed coaches, and in addition, ASU got some veteran players back from injury. Arkansas State has been taking it relatively carefully, with a big win over Davenport and a loss at home to Life. This week’s game was called off, so they are coming into the game relatively untested. But the Red Wolves are experienced, so they should be OK.

The Clemson Tigers, for their part, have been working hard. They have lost to Life, Navy, and Air Force, and beat South Carolina and Wheeling Jesuit (35-31 this past weekend).

Lucas Beni, Stuart Harr, Drew Dommel, and Ethan Harr have been in good form for Clemson, and the Tigers play once more this coming weekend, against Penn State. It’s two differing philosophies - train and keep your guys fresh, or play a lot and hone the approach that way. ASU has to be favored, but if the Red Wolves lose, it will be because they haven’t played a lot of games.


Notre Dame at Navy

Notre Dame plays Bethel this weekend as part of the warmup games for the Irish. For Notre Dame, there is a lot of work to do. They replaying some tough teams - Arizona, Chicago Lions - but they’re not at that level, they will find a tough opponent in Navy.

The Naval Academy just lost to Army, a game in which they clawed back from an early deficit. Head Coach Mike Flanagan was proud of that comeback and wins over Penn State and Dartmouth are good indicator of how solid the Midshipmen are. Navy should have no trouble with the Irish.


Texas at Cal

The Cal Bears rebounded from a tough loss to UBC (50-3), to beat Utah this past weekend. The Bears face off with Stanford on Wednesday and that’s it until April 9. Cal has beaten UCLA, Air Force, Arizona, Arizona State, and St. Mary’s among others. Texas, on the other hand, just lost to Oklahoma 20-12. In one sense that was a relatively encouraging result, because it was close, but the Longhorns did not win a game in the Red River Conference, and - as hard as the players and coaches are working - they just aren’t strong enough this year. 

This will be a Cal win, and a big one.


Oklahoma at Army

So we just heard that Oklahoma beat Texas, and in fact the Sooners have done fairly nicely, with wins over, among others, Texas A&M. They did lose to LSU, but their trip to Jamaica was a good warmup, and a success. But … can they overcome an Army team that is determined to finish strong, and win a postseason game? It will be hard. Army’s performance against Navy was impressive - the score was, ultimately, very close, but Army at their best look very good in the backline, and their continuity up front is solid. Oklahoma is going to have a tough time.


UCLA at Central Washington

CWU has been toiling in obscurity, to a certain extent, because the Wildcats don’t play any sort of conference schedule, and the other college teams in their area that can compete with them are rare, it’s a combination of club opponents, some college games, and some opposition across the Canadian border.

That last is what CWU enjoyed last week, losing to University of Victoria. UVic is very strong, and a 27-22 loss to the VIkes is no shameful result. Two weeks before, CWU lost at BYU 58-27, in a game where they looked like they might put a scare into the Cougars after 50 minutes.

This weekend, Central and Air Force are fully aware they need some more game time, and the Zoomies will visit CWU. 

Meanwhile, UCLA has been busy, finishing 4-1 in the PAC Rugby Conference, beating Utah but losing to Cal. UCLA will not play this coming weekend, so again this is a meeting between a team resting up against a team needing games. If Central has all of their top players, they will be very, very tough to stop.



Air Force at Utah

Neither Utah nor Air Force wants to go into the Varsity Cup undercooked, and neither will. Air Force, as we told you, will play at Central Washington, while Utah gets to face BYU in the Wasatch Cup.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Utah, during which the Utes beat Arizona, almost beat St. Mary’s but lot to UCLA and Army in really close games. Sometimes the Utes put in a full 80 - and often they don’t. They will need 80 to hang with BYU, and the same goes for their game against Air Force.

Air Force has been humbled repeatedly, but Life, Cal, BYU; at some points you’ve got to think they’ll let it hurt their morale, but it doesn’t seem so. They are going to go into CWU ready to attack, and they could certainly surprise Utah. 

Utah and Air Force did meet up already. On October 31 Utah beat the Falcons 41-30. Chances are, that will be the scoreline again, but with the way injuries can pile up, especially when teams play the likes of BYU and CWU, you never know.



Final Thoughts: The problem with the Varsity Cup in the past has been that the matchups weren't all that great. The likelihood of even a close game was slim, and at the top end of the Varsity Cup that still seems to be the case. Last year's Clemson win over Arkansas State was perhaps the first result that was truly exciting. This year's edition has some of those uninspiring matchups. While teams continue to join the Varsity Cup in the name of "exposure" most will get almost none except in the regular rugby press. Of the eight first-round games, three are sure blowouts, and three or possibly four more could pretty much be picked by anyone with a passing knowledge of the game in this country.

In the round following, things won't be any more competitive. The Varsity Cup has had the same four semifinalists every year since its inception. That might change this year, as Arkansas State could well beat Navy, but it's really hard to see BYU, Cal, or Central Washington being stopped.