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SALT LAKE CITY — Like most professional sports teams in North America, the Utah Warriors haven’t played a match in nearly three months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And while the season has been cut short because of public health concerns and international visa concerns that affect more than one-third of the league, they’re still working. The Warriors are still here. And they’re still preparing for the 2021 season.
That preparation took a big step forward Saturday with the inaugural Major League Rugby Collegiate Draft, which was streamed live on the league's Facebook page.
Utah selected Saint Mary’s center Derek Ellingson with the No. 3 overall pick, followed by Iona fullback John Powers at No. 7, Loyola fly half Danny Giannascoli at No. 15, and former offensive lineman-turned-prop Elijah Hayes at No. 19.
With a league-high four picks in the two-round event, the Warriors have taken a developmental approach to the affair, with director of rugby Brandon Sparks likening the franchise to the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. And because of the team’s unique need for development, the “mental durability” became just as important for the Warriors as the physical durability of the new players, Sparks said.
“They have a lot of experience of overcoming and making it through challenging situations,” Sparks told KSL.com. “It’s not always going to be easy coming to MLR, and you’ve got to have a mental makeup that will have you ready to get on the level of your new peers.”
Utah’s four picks tied newcomers Dallas for the most in the league, after the Jackals made a trade Saturday to gain one more selection. Dallas had the No. 1 overall pick, followed by fellow expansion side Los Angeles at No. 2, while Utah led the returning teams, which selected in reverse order of the 2020 regular season standings through the first five matches of the season, pre-pandemic.
Dallas selected Life University outside center Conner Mooneyham, who returned from a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Argentina in 2018. NOLA Gold picked Central Washington prop Brian Nault as the No. 2 overall selection.
Major League Rugby will kick off its fourth season in 2021 with 13 teams, after adding expansion sides Dallas and the Los Angeles Giltinis, and founding member Colorado Raptors withdrew from the league.
Here’s a look at the Warriors’ newest players.
No. 3: Derek Ellingson, center/wing, Saint Mary’s
Ellingson is perhaps most known for playing alongside prop Payton Telea Ilalio, who won the 2019-20 Rudy Scholz Award given to the top player in U.S. men’s collegiate rugby, at Saint Mary’s.
But as the former product of USA Hockey’s standout program for youth development, Ellingson grew from a first-time rugby player as a freshman at Saint Mary’s to regular starter who also represented the Gaels at last year’s collegiate sevens national championship.
“Derek was a USA Hockey Pathways player until he aged out, and at that point he came to rugby,” Sparks said. “He’s only played rugby for three years, but the fact that he is a dual-sport athlete says a lot. It was a key characteristic for our team.”
No. 7: John Powers, wing/fullback, Iona College
A first-team All-Liberty Conference selection and 2019 vice captain at Iona, Powers hit the ground running in his collegiate career, scoring a try in his first game, a 33-5 win over Indiana last fall.
He also went on to captain Rugby United New York’s U-23 development academy squad in 2019.
“This is a well-spoken, smart kid,” Sparks said of the fast-talking New Yorker. “John has that good old fashioned New York grit. I definitely think John can make it anywhere.”
No. 15: Danny Giannascoli, fly half/fullback, Loyola
A former soccer player, Giannascoli enrolled at Loyola (Md.) and went on to graduate with an MBA and earn dean’s list honors in his final semester. The shifty 200-pound flyhalf Giannascoli was captain of Loyola’s Division II rugby squad 2018 and 2019, despite having never played the sport prior to his senior year of high school.
A four-time all-conference honoree at Loyola, Giannascoli was a two-time NSCRO All-American and Mid-Atlantic South MVP in 2018-19
“He’s a really smart player,” Sparks said of Giannascoli, who also works as an underwriter for a mortgage company in New Jersey, according to his LinkedIn page. “He played his way on to the top side at sevens nationals, and hit the conversion drop goal to put them into fourth place.
“He’s 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame, intelligence, and we think working with coaches like Shaun Davies and Chris Latham that he’ll end up being really successful.”
No. 19: Elijah Hayes, prop, Iowa Central Community College
A former NCAA Division I offensive lineman at Southeastern Louisiana, Hayes transferred to Iowa Central to play rugby as a sophomore and helped the Tritons win the DI-AA national championship. The 6-foot-2, 280-pound prop scored a try in the championship match, a 34-21 win over Western Michigan, just five years after the program’s inaugural campaign and three years after his own introduction to the sport.
Hayes was originally considering a transfer to play at Division I Life University in Marietta, Georgia – a short four-hour drive to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where his brother Kyle Edwards will play football at Alabama.
Instead, his professional career will start in Major League Rugby.