The All-Army team won its third consecutive crown at the 2015 Armed Forces Rugby Sevens Championship Tournament at Infinity Park, home of the Glendale Raptors, one of the nation’s premier rugby clubs, Aug. 14-15.
The Soldiers went 5-0 against teams from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard in the Armed Forces division of the world-class Serevi RugbyTown Sevens Tournament, which also drew teams from across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Bahamas.
Five All-Army players and their coach were named to the All-Armed Forces Team. U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, ruggers Sgt. Mattie Tago, 1st Lt. William Holder and 1st Lt. Ben Leatigaga of Fort Carson, Colorado, were joined by Spc. Faleniko Spino of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and Ohio Army National Guard Spc. Zach Forro, along with head coach Col. Mark Drown of the Utah Army National Guard.
“That’s the byproduct of a good group of guys,” said Drown, who tentatively plans to take the All-Armed Forces Team to a tournament in Victoria, Canada, next spring. “I feel like the caboose because the train definitely is the players, and when they do well, I get to ride along.”
Holder scored two tries to lead All-Army to a 43-12 victory over All-Air Force in the gold-medal game. All-Army got one try apiece from WCAP Capt. Andrew Locke, Leatigaga, Spino and Sgt. Anthony Welmers of the Michigan Army National Guard during the Soldiers’ rout of the Airmen, who got two tries from Capt. Eric Duechle of Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.
“We knew Air Force was suffering from some injuries,” Drown said. “We were fully healthy with a deep bench. Playing a full 10-minute half [for the championship, as opposed to 7-minute halves in pool play] was definitely to Army’s advantage, and we did the rotation to take advantage of it. We were able to run Air Force out of their rotation, their pattern and their depth. That’s what really broke Air Force’s back.”
Led by the two-try performance of Tago, the Soldiers opened at noon Friday with a 52-0 shutout of the Marines. Leatigaga, Spino, Forro, Maj. Nate Conkey of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and Spc. Melendez-Rivera of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, each added a try. Holder and Locke also booted three conversions apiece.
In rugby sevens play, the goal is to score as many points as possible. The game is quick and dynamic, played over two seven-minute halves.
Teams of seven players each advance the ball down the field by passing, running, and kicking the ball to score a try, similar to a touchdown in American football. A try is scored by touching the ball to the ground in the opponent’s try zone and is worth five points. After a try, a team has the right to score two points by placekicking the ball through the goalposts.
“The Marines got off to a back foot and we were able to get a good score line on them,” said Drown, who thought the 52-point margin of victory was a record for All-Army in rugby sevens competition. “When Ben is moving the ball around and spreading it, and all of a sudden he keeps it, it’s pretty much guaranteed he’s going to break that line. And Mattie Tago, if you give him any room, he’s going to really cause problems. A powerful runner, he is still learning. He’s been in the World Class Athlete Program for about 90 days now, and I know he’s learned a lot. He’s going to do nothing but grow and mature. I think he’s going to be a phenomenal asset [for the U.S. national team.]”
Spino switched from football to rugby at Del Campo High School in Fair Oaks, California, because of “the brotherhood.” He since has won two Armed Forces gold medals.
“This is the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” said Spino, 21. “I had never been a champion in any sport until I was with the All-Army Team. I would love to be selected for WCAP. I don’t know if I’m ready quite yet, but I’m definitely working my game to get there.”
Later Friday All-Army rallied from a 12-0 deficit for a 19-12 victory over All-Navy. Leatigaga, Holder and Tago scored the tries, and Holder was good on two of three conversion attempts to keep the Soldiers unbeaten. Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Smith of Virginia Beach, Virginia, and CECN Dejon Dawsey of PWD Sigonella in Sicily, Italy, tallied tries for the Navy.
In the Friday nightcap, Holder, Faleniko, Melendez-Rivera and Tago scored tries in All-Army’s 26-5 victory over All-Coast Guard. Holder and Locke added two conversions each. Machinery Technician 2nd Class Eric Geckas of Coast Guard Station Tybee Island, Georgia, scored for Coast Guard.
“The Navy and Coast Guard came out and gave us really great games,” Drown said. “We just saw their athleticism, and they’ve got good coaches. Those tight games were just an indicator of where our Armed Forces program overall is going.”
On Saturday, Welmers scored two tries and Forro added one to lead All-Army to a 22-12 victory over All-Air Force in the teams’ final game of pool play. Duechle and Staff Sgt. Joseph Sentino of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, scored tries for the airmen.
Forro switched from high school football and wrestling to rugby and began playing with the Cleveland Crusaders, who play throughout the Midwest, before joining the Army. He said the Armed Forces tournament was the highest level at which he has competed.
“Getting that gold medal around your neck is the best feeling in the world,” said Forro, 22, of Mentor, Ohio. “For some of these guys, this is their third time, but for me, it’s the first time. This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever played. The whole experience has just been awesome.
“This is the first time I’ve played in a tournament like this, and hopefully not the last,” Forro said. “It was a huge learning experience, listening to some the veterans on my team. I was very happy to get the playing time that I did, and when I did, I tried to come in and make an impact. I used my fitness and little bit of knowledge to do what I could.”
Drown said that was the beauty of this All-Army squad.
“Every different player on the Army team stepped up at a different time,” Drown said. “They were really good about the changes in the lineup because I was throwing a lot of different combinations in there. Players like to get used to players, but if everybody’s playing our system, it shouldn’t matter who’s playing right and left. We were firing on all cylinders.”
Drown also saluted the support his team received from WCAP and the Army National Guard.
“The Army WCAP program has been the catalyst for us being successful,” he said. “I don’t think we would be here winning three in a row without the World Class Athlete Program because these players are playing under the WCAP and they graciously release them to play and train with us when they are not committed to the national program. I have to give them total kudos – it’s been a force multiplier for us. I don’t think we’d be holding medals without the WCAP support.
“Another thing that’s been a key component is the National Guard’s support through each state of having their Soldier-rugby players available to play. This year we had four Guardsmen on the team, two who actually suited up and two who were in the pool [of players] we had here. Not having the National Guard would have made it very hard for us to achieve the gold medal.”
The WCAP is a group of Soldiers, who are nationally and world-ranked in their respective Olympic sports. They train full-time and compete on the national and international levels with a goal of making Olympic, Pan American Games and U.S. World Championship teams. All-Army Sports provide Soldiers an opportunity to attend a training camp and compete against teams from other branches of the U.S. military at Armed Forces Championships for several sports. The All-Armed Forces Teams selected at those tournaments advance to additional national or international competitions.
Drown said Air Force officials have asked him how he managed to tap into the National Guard’s pool of players.
“It’s really just word of mouth and state support from the different commands, and it’s been unbelievably successful,” Drown said. “They can go onto Army Sevens on Facebook and hit us there, and we’ll let them know where we’re going to be so we can go see them play.”
All-Army has won three consecutive Armed Forces rugby sevens championships since losing the inaugural sevens tournament to the Marines when Armed Forces switched from the 15-man format.
“It validates what these players have done over three years,” Drown said. “It validates our whole concept of the total rugby year-round, as much as possible. It validates the commands letting these guys get away to represent the U.S. Army, so hat’s off to the different commands. I know it’s a burden to lose a Soldier, but what they’re doing is really great for Army morale and sports, in general, for the Armed Forces.”