#1 Gaels Host #10 San Diego State in Last Home Regular Season Game | By: Christian Portillo

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MORAGA, CALIF. - On Saturday, March 4th, the undefeated Saint Mary’s Gaels will play the #10 San Diego State Aztecs at Saint Mary’s Stadium at 1:00 P.M. This California Conference clash is the Gaels’ last regular season home game before they embark on a three game road trip and then head to Ireland and Scotland for the Spring Tour, which is currently only $975 short of being completely funded for in the total of $30,000. Please feel free to donate to the campaign by tonight to ensure that as many Gael ruggers can go on a once-in-a-lifetime experience where they will receive top-notch foreign coaches, get to sightsee and explore the cultures of other countries, and bond as a team as they head into the playoffs.

Saint Mary’s, who climbed to the top of the rankings after beating BYU 27-12, protected their coveted standing by fending off Cal Poly 94-7 last week.  Both Mike and Tommy Wallace had hat tricks while Mike McCarthy showed off his kicking prowess by hitting 12 of 14 conversions in addition to scoring a try.

San Diego State is coming into Moraga scorching hot, as they are undefeated in California Conference play and came away with an impressive nonconference win over #15 Arizona two weeks ago. The #10 Aztecs will look to remain in the Top 10 for weeks to come by knocking off the #1 ranked team in the country, but it will be a tall order as the elder statesmen on the Gaels want to make their last home regular season game a memorable one.

Gael Rugby had the opportunity to interview senior scrum-half Holden Yungert this past Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s match and touched on a variety of subjects ranging from the Aztecs, coming back from injury, the pressures of being ranked the #1 side in the country, last year’s home loss in the National Championship, postgame tailgates, the Spring Tour, and more.

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*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.*

**Special thanks goes out to Holden Yungert for making time after practice to conduct this interview.**

You guys are coming off of a nice win over Cal Poly and will face San Diego State, who D1A moved up to #10 in its weekly rankings and who have only lost to BYU in January. What have you been watching for in film and preparing for in practice?

We actually haven’t gotten much film on them. We watched their BYU game, we watched their last game against Arizona, who we don’t get to face this year, unfortunately. But film can sometimes be deceiving with how fast teams are and how big they are compared to other teams, so we have just been watching them to see what their tendencies are in attack and on defense, where we can take advantage of them, on and off the ball. Practice this week hasn’t changed much. We actually had Monday off-the last couple of weeks have been pretty hard training, but today was a hard day and I’m sure tomorrow is going to be even harder. It’s just getting back into that rhythm of beating yourself up to be better for tomorrow.

Not only is Saturday’s match the last home game of the regular season, it will also act as a “Senior Night” for all of the seniors and fifth years players that have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into this program. All of these players have been key pieces to Saint Mary’s reaching the D1A National Championship three years in a row. When the National Anthem is sung, what do you think will be going through their minds-all the memories made with the program or just sole focus on the task at hand?

I think a lot of guys will be focused on the task at hand. I know, at least when I’m in that line, as the song progresses, everyone starts singing and getting pumped up with their voice and being next to the guy on the left and the right of them. I think a lot of guys focus on the task at hand and then after, depending on the result, that’s when guys really start taking it in and thinking about what the significance of the last home game is.

And for you personally, you have come back from an injury last year and have really come back strong. What was the hardest part of returning-the physical or mental aspect of rehab and rugby?                                                                                                                                 

I was away from the game for a solid two-and-a-half months and in that time I was a mess. I was unable to move and function for at least three weeks. So the hardest part for me was definitely coming back physically, because I picked up a little bit of extra pounds-so that was my struggle-shedding that and getting my lungs and my legs back up to standard, so if I could fit into the end of the season, I would do so seamlessly.

Did it take you a while to get a feel for the rhythm of the game back or did it instinctively return to you?

I like to think of it as riding a bike. Especially at my position [scrum-half], I have to have that sense of pace and flow of the game, so there’s a little rustiness with just technical skills but I think the overall skills and objective that we as a team have, is still pretty engrained.

SMC is undefeated so far. Regardless of end result, how would you say your guys’ overall game has fared with years past? Is this team comparable to the national championship winning teams or do you think you’re even better this year?

That’s a hard one. Each team, each year is different. You drop a couple of pieces, I mean we’ve had really great players come from here, and then you pick up a few more guys. This year has been amazing with some of the younger guys that I’ve been playing with throughout my time here, and they’ve really stepped up into these roles. Last year you didn’t really think they’d be there, and this year they’re above where you thought they’d be, which is great to see. I think we are comparable to the teams of yesteryear, especially the winning teams. I think a big strength we have this year is our subs. We were struggling in the last few years with guys coming off the bench either through injury or whatever the circumstances were, we just didn’t have the depth that we have now. And this year, this is the most guys on the team that are able-bodied, ready to play, focused, and determined. It’s great, that’s definitely where our strengths lie.

After the BYU win, D1A moved SMC from #3 on the board to #1. Does the team pay any attention to that or is it just outside noise while you guys work just as hard as before, regardless of ranking?

It’s hard not to listen to that noise, you know? But I think a lot of guys have the mindset of the rankings don’t matter until the end of the year. We want to finish in that number one position, we want to finish with the blue ribbon at the top of the podium. I think guys are just willing to work as hard as they can. You have one game ahead of you each week. Take that one down and you have the next one ahead of you, until May 6th [the date of the D1A National Championship]. That’s the goal.

Does last year’s loss in the National Championship at home still sting and provide a chip on your shoulder? Or is the past the past and is done with-it’s time to move on?

I know a lot of guys think back to that game. Unfortunately I didn’t get to play in that game, so that was a little bitter for me. So I have a different perspective on it. But I know that the guys that played in it definitely have a chip on that shoulder, especially the older guys. Just making sure that we’re prepared for certain events because anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. That was evident in last year’s final and I think guys are really determined on doing the small things right, which then become the big things.

The Gaels’ defense has looked unstoppable for long stretches of the game. Tell me about the communication needed between all 15 men on the field to not let opposing teams break the line.

A lot of is just trust in each other. That is one of our core principles-just trusting the guy on either side of you, the guy behind you, the guy in front of you, just trust for all the guys. By each others’ actions we kind of firm that up and we’re accountable with our own actions, so we push guys to be accountable with them, and trust them just like they trust us. That’s a lot of what goes into our defense. I know the communication itself is as simple as, once the line is set, identifying threats and then calling a certain defense to handle those threats.   

I know that your parents in particular are widely involved with organizing potlucks/tailgates for players and coaches of both sides and bringing alumni together. There will be another one after Saturday’s match. They have been vitally important in helping feed everyone and bringing everyone together in the name of rugby. Tell me what this great rugby tradition has meant to you, your teammates, and even to opponents.

My parents have been killing it. They’ve done a really good job of organizing the parent group and all the other parents have stepped up-it’s awesome to see. Especially coming off the field to that, they are there to support and they’re there to feed you. That kind of social tradition after the game is great because I think rugby is one of the only games where you get that. You might be slugging it out on the field and then you get off the field and you shake a hand and you share a sandwich, maybe something more. It’s great, that’s just one of the traditions that’s really kept me highly involved in rugby. It’s just great to see-it’s good camaraderie.

This Spring Tour, the team is traveling to Ireland and Scotland. Tell me about your past Spring Tour experiences and what you have taken away from them and why they are so important to the team.

I’ve been on quite a lot. I got to go my freshman year to Italy. That was a great trip. Pretty crazy, I split my eyebrow in the first game and got twenty stitches in Italy. It’s a good time and is just one of those times where it gives guys a chance to step back from school because it’s Spring Break to just focus on having a good time, playing rugby, sightseeing, enjoying the sights, smells, and tastes of whatever country you’re in, and then there’s obviously the rugby benefits where you get these foreign coaches that have an outside look at what you’re doing. There might be things that we’ve been trying to work on for four months and they took one look at it, and a little tweak here and then we’re flying for the next couple of games with that one little tweak. It’s just a really great wealth of knowledge going on the tour and the camaraderie and the team chemistry improves-everybody becomes a little more comfortable and happy with each other. It’s great to just blow some stress off.

What do you expect to take away from this year’s Spring Tour as you guys prepare for the playoffs in the hope of another national championship?

I’d say to just tighten up the finer points of our game. Especially when you’re playing the foreign teams, like Ireland and Scotland will have guys that have been playing this game since they could walk-just skill and class all across the board. It’s really up to us to tighten up our game so we can compete with these guys and you learn something. A guy hits you a certain way, you take a mental note from that  and try to use it on him next time. It’s one of those things where you learn by doing, by playing with these guys and having a good time while you do it.

96% of the $30,000 goal has been met-do you have a message for any potential donors as to why the Spring Tour is so critical to the team’s cohesiveness and development?

As student-players, this is an expensive trip and it’s one we couldn’t do without their support and the alumni. It wouldn’t even be possible without them. Thank you for all of the generosity they’ve given us as well as the support. The tour itself is just good-you make these memories that’ll last a lifetime. You develop these friends, whether they are your own teammates, you develop your friendships a little bit more, or whether you gain a couple of friends while you’re overseas, it’s just things that’ll really last and are meaningful. Rugby-centric things and then also things off the field.