College Rugby: Helix alumn dons Aztec jersey

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The 2018 Collegiate Division 1-A rugby national championship game is scheduled to take place May 5 at Santa Clara University.

The title contest will be the culmination of the 2017-18 season in which more than 70 teams played in more than 250 games across the country to determine the final two teams left standing.

In this weekend’s nationally televised semifinals (live on the CBS Network), Cal Berkeley will meet Lindenwood University from Missouri while Georgia’s Life University will test Penn State.

The 2018 Collegiate Division 1-A rugby national championship game is scheduled to take place May 5 at Santa Clara University.

The title contest will be the culmination of the 2017-18 season in which more than 70 teams played in more than 250 games across the country to determine the final two teams left standing.

In this weekend’s nationally televised semifinals (live on the CBS Network), Cal Berkeley will meet Lindenwood University from Missouri while Georgia’s Life University will test Penn State.

Cal is the sport’s longtime powerhouse program with 69 national championships since 1980.

San Diego State University just fell short of qualifying for this year’s 16-team national championship tournament.

The Aztecs hosted California Conference rival Cal Poly San Luis Obispo April 7 at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium in the teams’ final regular season game. The winner would advance to the playoffs. The season would end for the loser.

Cal Poly held off a furious second-half comeback by SDSU to prevail, 29-22, in a physical affair that was held in suspense until the final seconds.

Aztec coach Alex Lichtig called the match a “must-win” game.

It was a smorgasbord of non-stop action and thrills for the hundreds of fans in the stands — organized mayhem.

“Every year we play Cal Poly it’s like that — it’s really physical and aggressive,” Lichtig explained. “All the little things that make up a game make a large difference (in the outcome). We look forward to playing them each year. It’s a game to remember, especially for the seniors.”

SDSU finished the season 3-2 in conference play, 3-5-1 overall.

Saint Mary’s College and Cal Poly advanced from the California Conference to the D1-A national championship tournament.

Rugby is a hybrid between American football and soccer. There are two 40-minute halves, with continuous play like soccer, though the actual field formations and strategy is more akin to American football.

While watching a rugby game, it is easy to see how American football developed from both soccer and rugby (which had its origin in Rugby, England).

Homegrown

Rugby draws athletes from all disciplines but high school football and wrestling — full-blown contact sports — are two big contributors to creating a collegiate rugby player.

High school rugby is also growing within San Diego County, producing its own cadre of athletes. It is no surprise then that SDSU embraces several local products in its program, which includes between 55 and 60 athletes on three teams.

Junior center/wing Nick Lupian, who competed in wrestling and track and field (pole vault) at Helix High School, suffered an upper body injury early in the Cal Poly game. His loss was a blow to the team, Lichtig said.

“He’s been one of our best players over the past season,” the SDSU coach noted.

The Aztec program includes players from about a dozen San Diego County high schools. Talent covers the depth and breadth of the county.

Torrey Pines High School alums Johnathan Raby and Chase Pickwell, along with   freshman Nico Gilli (La Costa Canyon High School), have come to SDSU from North County youth programs.

Emmanuel Barajas, a former wrestler at Bonita Vista High School, is on SDSU’s second side.

The Aztec club team has been in existence since 1956. SDSU won the national championship in 1987 and has produced its share of top-flight talent over the years.

The Aztecs gained national attention in recent years by reaching the semifinals in the 2010 USA Sevens Rugby Collegiate Championship Invitational, a tournament that was telecast live on NBC-TV.

SDSU won the 2012 California Sevens tournament, which qualified it for the 2012 USA Rugby Sevens Collegiate National Championships. The Aztecs reached the quarterfinals of the 2015 tournament. 

Ex-SDSU player Stephen Tomasin made the roster of the Team USA Sevens, and has since earned 19 caps with the USA Eagles.

Former Aztec Duncan Kelm, named to the all-tournament team at the 2010 Collegiate Championship Invitational, played for the USA Sevens team from 2011-12.

A pair of players off last season’s SDSU team — Gil Covey (Cathedral Catholic High School) and Ryan Walls (San Marcos High School) — made the preseason roster of the San Diego Legion of Major League Rugby.

The SDSU-Cal Poly match-up served as the pregame for the Legion’s exhibition contest against the Houston SaberCats.

The Legion opened its inaugural season with a 39-23 loss on Sunday, April 22, at the Seattle Seawolves.

The Legion will host the Utah Warriors in its regular season home opener on Sunday, April 29. Game time is 4 p.m. at Torero Stadium.

Teams play eight regular season games. The top four teams in the standings qualify for the national championship playoffs to be held in San Diego in July.

Gunnar Waymire, who played high school rugby three years in East County, including for the Valhalla team (2015-17), has become a dedicated fan of the game. He was in attendance at the April 7 doubleheader at Torero Stadium.

“I love it more than hockey, which was originally my favorite sport,” he said. “Even if you don’t know anything about rugby, you should find it exciting to watch. It’s not every day you see somebody thrown into the air or a bunch of guys grinding in a big pile.” 

Road to the national championship

Division 1-A rugby is the highest level of college rugby within the United States and is administered by USA Rugby.

SDSU competes alongside Cal Poly, St. Mary’s College, UC Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, UC Davis and Stanford in the California Conference — one of seven conferences across the country that feed teams into the national championship tournament.

The first round of the playoffs featured several blowouts, but that changed in the quarterfinals.

Sixteenth-seeded Cal Poly bowed, 58-22, to top-seeded Saint Mary’s College in the first round on April 14 in Moraga. Saint Mary’s led 32-3 at halftime.

The Gaels hosted Lindenwood in the second round of the playoffs on April 21. Surprisingly, Saint Mary’s season ended there following a 43-22 loss.

Cal has escaped unscathed in their two playoff games so far, defeating Grand Canyon University, 85-14, in the opening round and topping Navy, 33-27, in last weekend’s quarterfinals.

Other first-round winners included Army West Point (52-15 over Colorado State), Navy (47-0 over Indiana University), Penn State (51-34 over the University of Arizona), BYU (34-23 over Arkansas State), Lindenwood (81-12 over Texas A&M), and Life University (87-7 over Central Washington University).

Quarterfinal-round winners included Lindenwood (43-22 over St. Mary’s), Penn State (48-46 over BYU), Life University (44-10 over Army) and Cal (33-27 over Navy).

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