ASU Rugby’s season has begun in earnest. Practices started on August 22nd a bit earlier than in previous years. Head Coach Pieter Hugo and Roger Tushingham return for this season. But there are some changes to the coaching staff Coach Simon Dunlop has moved on. Dunlop has been replaced by Coach Matt Myer. Myer is an ASU Rugby Alum, he joins fellow alum and college teammate Ben Cohen on the coaching staff. Cohen joined the coaching staff midway through last year’s fall season. In addition to coaching changes there has been another behind-the-scenes change, Alexandra Snyder has come on board to help with administrative and social media work. Her work has been instrumental in organizing events and helping players register with ASU and USA Rugby. Snyder has also created most of the recent social media graphics and taken most of the pictures as well.
ASU will start its season at home against Northern Arizona University on September 29. ASU will then send two teams up to play in the Flagstaff 10s on October 7th. On October 14th, ASU will take on Prescott. On the 21st ASU has another doubleheader, the A-side will play the University of Texas at El Paso followed by the B-side playing GCU’s B-side, both games will be played at the Poly Campus in Mesa. After a weekend off ASU will take on Red Mountain back at the Dorsey fields on Friday, November 3rd. ASU will wrap up its fall season on Friday, November 17th against the Scottsdale Blues.
The front row has to cope with the losses of Hernandez and the absence of Siegle. Regular A-side props Nick Booz and Isaiah Fatigoni are both returning after solid seasons last year. Booz brings a high work rate and provides breakdown smarts defensively. Fatigoni is one of ASU’s main carriers and the bedrock of the ASU’s scrum. Four rookies Lamon Begay, Jerimiah Rose, Rasa Yaghmaie and Jack Andrews add to ASU’s propping stocks.
The position of Hooker has a little bit of uncertainty. Sophomore Ethan Walls returns after missing the spring season with a knee injury but Senior Robert Gacula will miss the majority of the fall season after injuring his leg in late spring. Beneath Walls, things are a bit less clear. The incumbent hooker from last season, Alex Pitton struggled at the set piece. TJ Marquez played B-side most of last season but improved enough to make the squad for the final A-side game. However, Marquez is a limited lineout thrower and is a bit inexperienced. Rookie Koi McLeod is an interesting option at hooker he has the pace, power, and skills to be a problem in open play but his set-piece ability is yet to be tested.
In the 2nd row, both Sean Martin and Syd Schonwald graduated following last season. Martin was one of ASU’s main carriers and proved to be a talismanic player in the ASU pack. Schwonald had a couple of A-side appearances; his know-how, and experience at the lineout were valuable. Senior Nick Davies and Senior Harmon Crowe are both returning this season. Davies was the third main carrier in the ASU pack and also brought muscle on the defensive side of the ball, in addition to captaining the side. Crowe was elevated to the A-side late in the season after good performances on the B-side. Crowe was one of the main lineout targets for the B-side, brings good tight carrying and is a tough defender close to the ruck. Below that are rookies Drake Zinn, Bronson Smith and Bennett Ronay. The three have the size to play 2nd row but are completely untested and therefore an unknown quantity.
The back row is probably the least impacted by graduation Cole Macias, Landon Lahdony, Cameron McDonald and Pearse McNamara are all playing this season. Macias and Lahadony both have incredibly high work rates. Macias is taller, has more upside at the lineout, and is more active at attacking rucks. While Lahdony is a defensive breakdown threat and persistent low tackler, constantly chopping opposition carriers to generate turnover chances. McNamara is the most well-rounded of the backrowers, a capable lineout jumper, a dynamic carrier and a threat at the breakdown. McDonald started as a B-side outside center but moved to flanker early in the season and then moved up to A-side after some good performances for the B-side.
Sophomores Bowie Kaplan and Donavan Provenzano offered solid depth options as well. Kaplan has the size to be a useful lineout jumper and is industrious at the breakdown. Provenzano was pressed into service at Hooker occasionally but despite positional instability and injury managed the most carries of any back rower.
There are also plenty of exciting rookies who are likely to play back-row. Senior Carter Carlson transferred to ASU after playing outside linebacker at Washington State University for three years. Carlson has surprising speed and an explosive change of direction for someone so big, he also hits like a ton of bricks. Freshman Carlos Nowakowski was a back-rower for the state championship final Brophy Prep team. He had two tries, 16 tackles, and was named man of the state semi-final against Scottsdale Blues. Alex Reiman was a part of the back-to-back state-champion Phoenix Thunderbirds team. No.8 Ian Freemantle, from Bergen Catholic, offers an intriguing option at the lineout due to his height and has a surprising turn of pace in open play.
The Halfbacks were hit by injuries at various points last season. Alex MacDonald was out for the season after breaking his hand early. Joey Bridgman missed time with a shoulder problem. Kaden Ellison and Matt Loeffler, natural 12s, were both drafted to play Fly-Half when injuries hit. While Bridgman started the season at Scrum-Half before moving to Fly-Half. Louis Quiroz and Graham Ferguson were both standout B-Side players who were called up to the A-Side toward the end of the season. Quiroz played as a 12 for B-side but was moved to scrum-half and Ferguson was also brought up in part because of his utility value. The constant in the halves was Jacob Hurl who finished the season as the 2nd highest try scorer with 8. Despite all the chopping and changing in the halves Ferguson, Quiroz, Loeffler, Ellison, MacDonald, and Hurl are all returning this season and are healthy.
In the scrum-half position, Hurl and MacDonald complement each other nicely as a 1-2 punch. Hurl is the more explosive of the two and a dangerous playmaker while MacDonald is a better defender and keeps the game tighter. There are two rookie Scrum-Halves Jimi Letchford and Jared Lau it’s yet to be seen what their roles will be.
At fly-half, things are a bit less crowded. Ferguson performed well for the B-Side, and Loeffler and Ellison, while more comfortable at center remain options at 10 as well. The real wildcard will be Teague Perez. Perez was the starting 10 for the back-to-back state championship Phoenix Thunderbirds team. Perez has excellent decision-making and a distributary arsenal to get the ball where it needs to go with enough deception to give the receiver time and space.
The centers are another position group that remains strong. The only loss is Josh Lesly. Lesley played both inside and outside center bringing power and ball-playing to the backline. The returning group includes Matt Loeffler, Kaden Ellison, Christian Isles, Will Quinn and Louis Quiroz. Loeffler, Ellison and Quiroz were all pressed into service in the halves at various points last season but are more natural centers. Ellison and Loeffler are kind of similar. Both are 12s that have the power to get over the gain line while also having the ability to pass wider and the game sense to step in at 1st receiver. We have yet to really see what Isles is capable of because he was injured for much of last season. Will Quinn was also a player we didn’t see very much of in the spring but he played well in the fall and in his appearance against USD. Quinn played as an outside center, his pace makes him very dangerous in space, and he has the passing skill to create space for his wingers. Quiroz also played outside center most of last season and is equally capable of playing inside center. He goes about his work differently from Quinn, Quiroz is more of a distributor but can make breaks with his footwork and picking nice lines.
There are a few rookies who will look to stake a claim to a place in the centers, the most promising of which is Andrew Ady. Ady was a part of the state finalist Brophy prep team he scored in the semi-final and was named the most valuable back for the 2023 season. He brings a combination of line-breaking power and hard-hitting defense to the outside backs.
Similarly, the wingers were not impacted by graduation but multiple players are on a hiatus. Cooper Baines is studying abroad in Spain and will return in the Spring. On top of that Robert Huerta is still recovering from a knee injury sustained at the backend of last season. Baines alternated between outside center and wing last season performing well in both positions. Baines is an excellent defender frequently forcing turnovers by stripping the ball or throwing players into touch, while in attack Baines brings excellent line running and power. Huerta is a similarly excellent defender with a habit of throwing opposition wingers into touch; in attack, Huerta brings footwork and pace on the edge while possessing a healthy amount of power. Evyeni Gavrilidis is the only returning A-side winger. He brings pace and power while being a capable defender. On the B-side, Jesse Liberson, Dalton Ferguson and Gracen Lee-Frucini were the main wingers. Nate Troxel occasionally played wing too but split his time between wing and fullback. Liberson and Frucini are both similar, fast with good balance and lower body strength which makes them very difficult to tackle.
In terms of new wingers coming in this season, there are quite a few options Declan Dean while small is fast, has good skills and has excellent footwork as well. While Jose Avila and Dapo Hakeem bring speed and power.
Arguably the biggest loss to ASU was fullback Devin Rivet, his pace and power at the back allowed ASU to launch effective counterattacks and pose problems from set pieces. Adain Brooks made an appearance at fullback for the B-Side but was injured for most of the spring season. The main B-Side fullback was Braeden Darling who also captained the B-Side. Darling spent time at Fly-Half in the fall before being shifted to fullback. Darling’s playmaking, decision making and distribution are all excellent as well as his positioning and work under the highball, his goalkicking is also a valuable asset. Nate Troxel filled in when Darling was required in the halves and also played on the wing. Troxel is more of a ball runner his pace, strength and footwork make his kick returns effective.
ASU’s 15s team will kick off their season against NAU on September 29th. The game will be played at the Dorsey Intramural Fields (510 S Dorsey Ln).