WILDCATS CLOSE YEAR WITH SEVENS STEPS
Matteo Berenger and the Wildcats improved on last year's finish at Sevens National Championships. (Photo credits: Guy Warren)
May 11- Arizona officially closed out their season this past weekend in Houston with Sevens National Championships. Having reached the top eight in 2022, the Wildcats made the trip hoping to take the next step in their development.
Arizona opened pool play against Santa Clara, with Abe Turpen getting the Wildcats going with a first-minute try to make it 5-0. A Jacob Broselle score converted by George O'Brien and a converted try by O'Brien made it 19-0 at halftime. Using the second half to rotate athletes nearly bit the Wildcats, as the Broncos stymied them in the second half. A lone O'Brien score would be the only points for Arizona, but the 24-14 victory moved them to 1-0.
In game two against Florida, Antonio Gonzalez would make his presence felt with a long-range try, followed by a Seb Hickey score in the corner to make it 14-0 at the break. A second try from Gonzalez and some dogged defense made it 19-7 before a late O'Brien dash sealed the 26-7 win and clinched a spot in the cup rounds.
Their toughest opponent to date would be Davenport, with the Michigan-based varsity program squaring off with Arizona in the pool decider. O'Brien continued his strong form, scoring his fourth try of the day to open the game and make it 7-0. A quick response from the Panthers made it 7-5, and another try to end the half made it 12-7 at the break. At half, the adjustments were not enough as the Wildcats' defense broke down and the Panther side that would go on to finish 4th in the event scored two tries to make it 27-7 and hand Arizona their first loss.
In an interesting wrinkle, the Wildcats' success made it four games on day one, as they matched up with Army in the cup quarterfinal. In one of the best games of the year, the back and forth affair was all Army early, with a 14-0 lead at the break. The young side with zero seniors started to show the form that has so many in Tucson excited, with tries from O'Brien and EJ Freeman clawing Arizona back to tie the game. Going in to extra time, Army successfully received the kickoff, took advantage of a Wildcat missed tackle, and scored in the corner to seal a spot in the cup semis and hand Arizona the 19-14 loss.
The Wildcats traveled 1,100 miles to Houston only to take on an in-state foe in the Plate semifinal as Arizona and Grand Canyon met to open day two. In a rainy, windy morning, both teams played tight defense, with an 8th minute try by Freeman and a late red card against Grand Canyon for stomping on a downed player helping seal the tight 7-0 win and advance the Wildcats to the Plate final.
Sticking with the theme of the weekend, the wet and rainy day led to a tight contest between Arizona and Penn State with 5th place up for grabs. A second half score from the Wildcats tied the game at 5 and again put the squad into a nail-biting finish. On the final play of the game, a linebreak from the Nittany Lions would put them over the line, finishing the 12-5 victory and finishing the Wildcats' year at 6th in the nation.
While a step forward from last season's top eight finish, Arizona's weekend is the latest in what the team, alumni, and fans hope is a sign of things to come. "While we are happy to move to top six, we are not satisfied and will come back hungry to take that next step in both sevens and fifteens and seize our opportunities better. We're in a different world now than we were five years ago. All five of the teams that finished ahead of us on the weekend are either varsity or an athletics-club sport hybrid. Both teams in the D1A national championship were varsity. Two things I can promise: We will never use that as a crutch, and we will do all we can to ensure that any perceived gap on or off field continues to close" said Director of Rugby Sean Duffy.
The Wildcats end the year at 21-9 overall, and between their fifteens finish (10th) and sevens finish (6th) combine for one of their better seasons. With just three seniors graduating, the Wildcats look poised to take that next step in the years to come. Arizona's year featured several highs, including strong efforts over nationally ranked sides and a $1M gift to the program that will add scholarships and a rugby training center. Arizona is set to announce their 2023 first-year class shortly with athletes from all over the world slated to join the large group of returners in Tucson this August.