Don’t ask Jacob Liberman about Texas being the “new kid on the block”. He would more likely give you stories about Donnie, Joey, and Jordan than tell you Texas rugby has “made it”. Despite finishing their last 7’s tournament ranked 12th in the country Liberman has doubts about rating Texas as a tournament favorite. “We don’t think about stuff like that, we just want to get our preparation right and come out and perform like we know how,” advised the 7’s coach.
The University of Texas Rugby team will kickoff at their 4th Collegiate Rugby 7’s Championship in 4 years Friday against the University of Michigan at the Philadelphia Union Stadium in Pennsylvania. Coach Jacob Liberman has led the team in the previous 3 tournaments and has seen the team transform from wide-eyed overachievers to salty veteran campaigners. “Every year the level of competition goes up, so I think we have really improved but I also think everyone else has as well,” remarked Liberman.
Texas is led by captain and 5th year senior, Noah Villalobos. Villalobos is a 3-time Academic All American and one of the all-time best 7’s players to come through Texas. “Noah came in as a really hard-nosed guy,” said Liberman. “He wanted those big hits and to run guys over, but 7’s has really rounded out his game. Even though he’s a bigger guy he can run and distribute at a very high level. He competes at the breakdown and really holds the structure together.”
Villalobos isn’t alone however, as a few starters from last year’s CRC team return as well. Junior Taylor Hayes, grayshirt senior Skylar Talley, junior Tanner Avery, senior Rafa Segovia, and sophomore Manny Nwoko round out an impressive list of veterans on the roster. Hayes is the shiftiest player on the squad and one of the team’s best distributors. He was also singled out for a National U20 team in 2013 because of his running abilities. Another National U20 trialist is Reed Hogan. Hogan was the Texas High School Player of the Year last spring and he is looking to make the jump from school-boy phenom to consistent college performer. Liberman commented, “Even though they both got national team looks Reed and Taylor are 2 different guys. Reed is a big guy who can move and, along with Avery and senior Peter Hyams, will look to match up with our opponents physicality.” Hyams came to the program only this year, but has shown flashes of all-around game that could take the Longhorns to the next level. Talley, a familiar name to Longhorn Rugby fans after being a top performer last year, just rejoined the team this following spring.
Mixed in with the veteran group is a troupe of exciting newcomers. Matt Young and Hunter Wrobleske can flat-out fly, and Carson Youman has been impressing the coaching staff all year with his ability to adjust and his overall composure. Youman came to the program from Virginia, so the tournament is a homecoming of sorts after a long year in Texas. Also in his first year is exciting prospect Felix Olazaran. Olazaran hails from south of the border and came with the lofty recommendation of Mexican age grade National Team coaches. Olazaran is expected to play the role of a creator and distributor on the team.
Starting their tournament this Friday evening, Texas faces off against the CRC newcomer, the University of Michigan Wolverines. Knowing what to expect in such tournaments is difficult, but Michigan is expected to be big, fit, and well drilled. This is their first CRC and Texas is hoping that the occasion will give them the edge. Next, the ‘Horns will face their second Big 10 opponent , Ohio State. OSU won the Big 10 tournament to qualify after a year of not making the field at the CRC. The Buckeyes always have a couple top-tier athletes and are a team that really likes to impose its physicality.
The final group game will pit the Longhorns against the United States Naval Academy in what is quickly becoming a heated rivalry. Texas took some lumps in their 15s match against Navy during the 2014 Varsity Cup. In the fall 2013 College 7s National Championship, Navy defeated Texas in Day one with a last minute try and successful conversion to put them up by two. In Day 2 of the championship, Texas came out facing Navy again, regrouping themselves and coming away with a 17-10 victory to finish ranked 12th overall.
The Texas coaches will look for strong contributions from Hayes, Villalobos, Talley, and Hyams to push through the group stages and push for a place in the Cup quarterfinals. For Texas to be able to turn up the speed the inside players have to be strong defenders and accurate distributers. In a field that features Dartmouth, Cal, Arizona, and UCLA this will be the toughest event the team will face.
Stay tuned for match updates and watch NBC Sports for us this Friday and Saturday!! Hook’em \m/