The 2018 UConn 7s season has been our most successful in our short history, coming within a try of going to the College 7s D1A National Championships in a 12-17 loss to Fordham in the Liberty Rugby Conference 7s Series decider.
A large part of our success can be attributed to the support of the team administrators and Coach Bob Merola, who helped fund and organize our pre-season training at an indoor facility in East Hampton, CT. We were able to hold 5 weekly training sessions with 15-20 players at each session starting in February. This allowed us to hit the ground running when we were finally able to get outside onto our field at the Depot Campus. In contrast, last year we had played two tournaments before we were able to train outside and do any sort of contact in training. Without the indoor facility, we would effectively start the season with one hand tied behind our backs, so the club’s entire support played a great part in this season’s successes.
This spring, we scheduled four tournaments: the Connecticut Cup – a warmup tournament at CCSU, and the three tournaments that were part of the Liberty Rugby Conference 7s (LRC) Series.
In the first tournament, we laid claim to the title of the top college 7s side in Connecticut, going 5-0 and taking ownership of the Paul McCluskey CT 7s Trophy. The trophy is named in honor of Paul, who was a high-level ref, who is now stricken with ALS. Both Bob Merola and I know Paul from our playing days at the Wanderers and from his days as a ref, so it meant a lot to be able to take his trophy home to Storrs.
In the first tournament of the LRC Series, we got a sense of how good we could be, going undefeated until meeting our 2018 nemesis, Fordham, in the Cup Final. We got a pretty tough wake-up call in that match, getting shut out 27-0. We took away a few lessons about sticking to the game plan and not panicking. And, because the Series is based on the total number of points at the end of the 3 game Series (points are awarded based on where you place in each tournament), taking 2nd put us in a good position for the Series.
At Liberty Series #2 at URI, we were able to dodge a letdown in the Semi-Final against Albany, scoring on the last play of the game to win. We then beat Northeastern (another nemesis, who we hadn’t beaten in recent years) to take the LRC 7s Championship Cup Final, setting up a showdown with Fordham for the Series title and a trip to the Nationals in Denver.
In the 3rd LRC Series tournament at Colgate in upstate NY, we were able to again get generous support from the team, alumni and parents which allowed us to fund a rental van and Friday night hotel rooms in NY, as it was a 4.5 hr. drive, and we had a 9AM kickoff on Saturday morning.
As the season started, the team was asked the team to set two goals; a goal that was a challenge, but within reach, and a “stretch” goal that would require all of us (players and coaches) to be at the top of our game and a few “uncontrollables” to go our way. The first goal was to win one tournament in the Series. Check. The second was to win the Series and go to the Nationals.
We started on a path of achieving our second goal, going undefeated until meeting Fordham in what was effectively the LRC Series decider. We had some injuries, and had to shuffle our lineup around a bit, but played good defense in the first half. However, two errors saw Fordham capitalize on each, scoring on the first and last play of the half to go into the break up 12-0. To the team’s credit, they came back and scored two tries while allowing one to Fordham. We scored the second try with about a minute left, and Fordham got the ball back from the ensuing restart. We played good defense, forcing them into touch. Unfortunately, the ref blew full-time after that play, and we fell one try short of a great comeback.
Overall, our 7s season was a great success – we achieved one of our goals, and we surprised many coaches and teams in the conference. We lost only two games* over four tournaments – both to Fordham, who is a pretty good team with some great athletes.
The good news for the future is that of the 12 players in the Colgate squad, we had 3 Freshman, 3 Sophomores, 4 Juniors and 2 Seniors. So we should have 10 of the 12 Colgate 7s squad back next season, along with several other underclassmen, giving UCONN 7s a good core to build from. Our “work-ons” for the next year are to secure indoor training space again for this winter, and to develop a comprehensive strength and conditioning program. While we often had quicker or more skilled players, we were almost always outmatched in size, and we frequently see this on the 15s side as well. This is a fixable problem, and if we get started right away, we could be starting down the path to achieving that “stretch” goal next year.
Thanks again to the team officers and alumni for their support and to Coach Bob Merola for putting everything in place for us to be successful.
* For the record, excluded is a consolation match against Delaware, after we had lost the title to Fordham – we were spent physically and mentally, and just went through the motions. That match did not resemble the team we were.