This past Saturday, the Highlanders celebrated a very successful 2016 year by awarding some of their best and brightest stars at the Annual Awards and Holiday Dinner hosted by Claddagh Irish Pub. During the year of 2016, the Highlanders were able to go undefeated in league play in both the spring and the fall, boasting a perfect 11 – 0 record. This led them to finish the 2015 – 2016 competitive cycle with an 8 – 2 record and take a perfect 8 – 0 record into the fall break this competitive cycle.
This first award of the evening was given to the Club’s best defender. Competition was tight for this award with several solid tacklers and high quality defenders nominated for the award. The first nominee was Flanker Michael Boyd, who made the transition from winger in 2014 and 2015 to loose forward in 2016. Mike started seven games at flanker this past fall and even spent some time back as an emergency winger during the first South Pittsburgh game on September 10th. Mike is an aggressive tackler and ball carrier and uses his skill set well at flanker. The next nominee was his flanking counter-part, Eric David. Before suffering a shoulder injury late in the season, Eric played Open-side Flanker exclusively for first four games of the season and one game at wing versus Greensburg on September 24th. Eric, for his size, is arguably the most skillful and tenacious tackler on the field. With unmatched cardio and off the charts agility, he’s a threat everywhere on the field. The third nominee was newcomer Michael Rennie. Also a Loose Forward, Rennie joined the team after a short hiatus from rugby. He filled in nicely as the Club’s new Number 8 and started seven games there after coming back from an early season foot injury. Rennie is experienced and fundamentally sound, often finding himself in the best spot to make a key tackle. The final nominee was determined Inside Center Neil Reynolds. Neil is a devastating hitter and strives to make a big play on every defensive opportunity. Neil often provides opposition ball carriers no time or space with his smothering attack. After some close voting, Eric David was able to take home his first award as a Highlander, a well-deserved Defender of the Year.
The second award of the evening was for Highlander Rookie of the Year. The fall of 2016 proved to be quite a recruiting class for the Highlander men. They had a number of new players join the team and many of them were extremely talented and earned quality time almost immediately. The first nominee was high school football standout turn rugger, Lance Reaghard. Initially trained to be a Hooker, Lance earned plenty of time at Flanker when injuries struck Sam Zimmerman and Eric David. Lance made the most of his opportunities, playing extremely well in his first career start against a very solid Cleveland Crusaders side on October 22nd. In his first season with the Highlanders, Lance played in five league games and started two. The next nominee was Number 8 Michael Rennie. Although hardly a rookie to the sport of rugby, Rennie was nominated for the award since it was his “rookie” season with the Highlanders. Rennie joined the team shortly before the start of the season and immediately emerged as a vocal leader who provided valuable insight into the Highlander scrum. Rennie is defensively sound and extremely crafty offensively. The next two nominees were from the Highlander backline. Michael Zapf joined the team a few weeks into the season having never played rugby before. After a few short weeks of training, Zapf was able to find playing time in five Highlander games this fall. He started in three, but due to a red card against the Crusaders, he was forced to miss a game due to suspension. Even with that being the case, Zapf was able to score two tries in five games played this fall. The final nominee and winner of the 2016 Highlander Rookie of the Year was talented back-liner Devin Zangaro. Devin joined the team just after training camp and has played amazing every week. He’s started at either wing or fullback in all eight games this fall. When Captain Tyree Massie was injured during the South Pittsburgh game, Devin even stepped up and played some time at Flyhalf, his natural position at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Devin is a sound defender, having a keen sense of where to be at all Three Quarters positions. Offensively, Devin is dynamic and creative. He uses his deceptive speed and play making ability to make the most ordinary plays into valuable scoring opportunities. Devin scored five tries in eight games for the Highlanders and assisted in countless other’s scores.
Following Rookie of the Year was the award for the veteran Highlander players. Each season, the Highlanders recognize the player who has improved his game over the past competitive cycle. Last year’s winner, prop Dan Andrus, was once again nominated as he was able to continue building on his 2015 year by further improving his skillset this past year. With a number of injuries in the front row this fall, Dan has found himself getting more, well-deserved playing time than ever before in his Highlander career. In 2016, Dan has played in nine games for the Highlanders, starting four. He even scored his first career try in April against South Pittsburgh. Second Row Brandon Bevenuti has been a rising star for the Highlanders since joining the team in 2013. He was last season’s Highlander of the Year (MVP) and continues to dominate opposing forwards with his quickness and agility. The third nominee for Most Improved was Winger turned Flanker Mike Boyd. Highlander leadership was ecstatic with Mike’s transition to the forwards. As mentioned above, Mike is a standout defender while also being quite a force on offense. At Flanker, Boyd was able to harness his aggression with many more touches and more involvement in the gameplay. The final nominee was again Boyd’s flanking counter-part Eric David. Since joining the team in early 2014, Eric has now come into his own as a rugby player. Dynamic on both sides of the ball, Eric has climbed the player ladder to become one of the brightest stars on a very talented Highlander side. The 2016 winner was Flanker Mike Boyd for his standout fall performance and dramatic increase in skill since joining the Club in the spring of 2014.
The Most Dedicated Award was not voted on by the Club members rather was awarded based upon the attendance for fall 2016. Since joining the team in late July 2016, Slippery Rock alumni Brendan Crifaci has been one of the most dedicated players ever to put on the red and black. Brendan, a prop from Cranberry, PA attended and unprecedented 94% of all Highlander trainings and games, missing only two practices from the beginning of August until the middle of November. During that time frame, Brendan started all eight games of the fall 2016 season at Loosehead Prop. The other nominees for Most Dedicated included Lock Andrew Chapman, Flanker Eric David and rookie Lock Jon Fazekas from W&J College. All three players attended 89% of Highlander events throughout the course of the fall, again an astounding figure.
The final three awards recognized the best Highlander players at their respective positions, narrowed down to either forward or back, and finally the Highlander of the Year which represents the most valued player on the Club. The first award given recognized the Highlander Forward of the Year. All of the nominees were also nominated for other awards on the evening; the first nominee was Second Row Brandon Benvenuti, followed by Flanker Mike Boyd, Lock Andrew Chapman and the eventual winner of the award, Number 8 Michael Rennie. Although Rennie did not play in the spring of 2016, he was quickly able to climb into the Highlander scoring race by touching down eight tries in only seven games played this fall. In addition to his nose for the try zone, Rennie has been instrumental in improving the Highlander’s set pieces. His invaluable experience and great coaching touch have made him the unquestioned authority among some pretty outspoken and experienced forward pack players. Rennie was extremely deserving of this award, even with his short time on the Club.
The next award was given to the Highlander Back of the Year. This was a very close vote with every regular Highlander starting in the backs earning at least one vote. This has been a tremendous strength for the Highlanders this season and was reflected in the close voting results. The first nominee was Outside Center Patrick Dobbins. After suffering a broken thumb in July while playing 7’s for the Club, Patrick’s season was very much in jeopardy at the beginning of the fall. Through hard work, Dobbins was only forced to miss one game, week one vs. South Pittsburgh, before coming off the bench in week two against Pittsburgh Rugby Club. There, he scored his first try of the fall and never looked back all season. In 2016, Dobbins is tied with Brandon Benvenuti for the most tries among all Highlander players with nine scores. This is in addition to being a lock down Outside Center defensively. The next nominee was Captain Tyree Massie. Since joining the team in early 2013, Tyree has emerged as a leader for the Club, which was reflected by his election as Club Captain this past summer. Tyree has scored five tries and started in every game with the Highlander in 2016. He and Inside Center Neil Reynolds are the only players on the Club to start and play in all eleven games this calendar year. The next nominee was Scrumhalf/ Fullback Zach Powell. Powell is a creative and dynamic player at both 9 and 15. He started the first two games for the Highlanders at Fullback and then played the heart of the season at Scrumhalf before closing out the season with a couple more performances at Fullback again. During 2016, Powell was able to place down five tries while converting seven kicks for a total of thirty nine points scored. He also earned Man of the Match honors on back to back weeks: October 11th at Akron and October 15th versus the Rovers. In addition to what shows up on the sheet, Powell was able to score in key moments of the Club’s biggest games and also set up his teammates for tries better than anyone else. The final nominee and winner of the Highlander Back of the Year was once again rookie Devin Zangaro. Like Powell, Devin is extremely versatile and creative regardless of where he is at on the field. He plays multiple positions extremely well and provides the Club with a lot of options when putting together a tough back line. Devin collected his second award of the evening, another well-deserved one.
The final award of the evening was the Highlander of the Year, which awards the Club’s most valuable player. Yet again, all of the nominees for this award were recognized earlier in the evening by being nominated for other awards. Forwards Brandon Benvenuti, Eric David and Michael Rennie were all deserving of the Highlander of the Year node, but ultimately fell just short of the win. Captain and Flyhalf Tyree Massie was this year’s winner. As mentioned above, Tyree is pivotal to the Club’s success as both their captain and the quarterback of the Club’s offense. Tyree has a great scoring touch, but even more importantly leads the Club in assists. Massie scored five tries in 2016 while playing in eleven games. He is an emotional player and often wills his team to victory with key offensive and defensive performances. Tyree was last year’s Back of the Year and is this year’s Highlander of the Year.
2016 Award Winners –
Best Defender: Eric David, Flanker
Rookie of the Year: Devin Zangaro, Three Quarters
Most Improved: Michael Boyd, Flanker
Most Dedicated: Brendan Crifaci, Prop
Forward of the Year: Michael Rennie, Number 8
Back of the Year: Devin Zangaro: Three Quarters
Highlander of the Year: Tyree Massie, Flyhalf