It is finally here, the D1A Playoffs opening round. After a season – and in particular a final month – with no shortage of twists and turns, teams are chomping at the bit to get their championship run underway. This weekend will see eight games played, with a collection of noteworthy matchups on display.
#7 Colorado State v. #10 Army, 9pm EST Friday, April 13th:
The first match of the weekend will see the Rocky Mountain Conference winner Colorado State take on the runner-up in Rugby East, Army. Army has been active throughout the latter half of the Spring, playing some of the best teams in the country. In the span of the last month the Black Knights have taken on Cal, Navy and Penn State. They have played all of these teams closely, but have only been able to pull off a win in one of these fixtures, Navy. Colorado State, however, has been fairly dormant throughout the Spring, but were a force to be reckoned with in the fall.
Army has a distinct attacking style of play, and will be relying on their ability to execute it if they are to make a deep run into the playoffs. They will be expecting the same from the Rams this weekend, when asked about their opposition this weekend, Black Knights head coach Matt Sherman responded, “Colorado State has some very talented players throughout their team. I think what’s particularly impressive about them is their attacking skill, ability, and flair. As they’ve proved, they can score a lot of points and are a dangerous attacking team.”
The Black Knights will also have to contend with travel and the change in the altitude this time around. However, Sherman doesn’t believe either of those will be a factor, “Of our 14 games this year, 9 have been on the road, and we have been focused all year on developing our ability to perform well on the road. This will be our 3rd time crossing the Mississippi and 2nd time competing at altitude (Air Force) so I think we are prepared for this trip. With that said, we are taking some additional steps now to ensure that we’re as best prepared as possible for the altitude adjustment.”
This game will prove to be a high-scoring spectacle with a good amount of offensive fire power. If you aren’t able to get out to Fort Collins, catch the match LIVE on The Rugby Channel.
#6 Indiana v. #11 Navy, 11am EST Saturday, April 14th
The second game of the weekend will pit the Big Ten Conference Champions, Indiana up against the second best independent school in the Country, Navy. Both teams had impressive Fall seasons which led to both of them enjoying time ranked in the Top 10. However, as Fall turned to Spring fortunes changed and Indiana has seen itself fall out of the Top 10; Navy, on the other hand, were able to land some impressive results and cement their high ranking.
Despite the change in fortune, Navy aren’t going to be taking anything for granted, this according to their Head Coach, Gavin Hickie, “Indiana are a very good side who have occupied a top ten spot in the D1A rankings for the majority of the season. We expect them to be big and powerful in the forwards while we know they have a few danger men in their backline. We will need to be at our very best to beat them in Bloomington.”
Both teams have made a habit of dominating their opposition upfront and bullying them into submission. Fans can expect a tight arm wrestle between two of the premier forward packs in the country. Whoever can make their impact felt more at the breakdowns and set pieces will likely come out on top. You will likewise be able to watch this matchup live on The Rugby Channel.
#5 Penn State v. #12 Arizona 1pm EST Saturday, April 14th:
When Penn State hosts Arizona this weekend, fans may be treated to the best game of the weekend. Penn State has proven themselves consistently throughout the season as one of, if not the best team on the eastern seaboard, while Arizona, has put together one of their strongest spring seasons in recent memory, and have proven they are capable of keeping up with the best teams in the nation.
Both teams pride themselves on their ability with ball in hand. For Penn State, they play an even keeled game, but with a pack that are arguably the most skilled in the country, they find themselves able to put points on the board at an electrifying rate. “(We) play a balanced game and are fortunate to have forwards that are good ball handlers and some good attacking backs. (We) have the ability to score a lot of points and enjoy playing a quick game.” Justin Hundley, Penn State’s head Coach explained. Sean Duffy, the head coach for Arizona, feels very similarly about his fifteen, “We aim to play a style that dictates the tempo of the game, usually up tempo but this year we’re able to beat teams a few different ways.”
Neither team is expecting an easy game, both coaches know they and their players will have their work cut out for them if they are to advance to the quarterfinals next weekend, “We have had a look at Arizona and they play a very nice brand of rugby. But the week will be focused on us and making sure that we play our best game,” Hundley added. Duffy expressed a similar sentiment, “I expect a conference champ to represent their conference well so we have work to do.”
This game will be a tight affair with two very potent offenses. It could very well turn into a game of last team to score wins. Penn State v. Arizona will be available to watch through The Rugby Channel.
#2 Life v. #15 Central Washington, 2pm EST Saturday, April 14th:
Last year’s runners-up, Life will be looking to take their playoff run one step further this year and the journey back to the national championship will start on Saturday against Central Washington.
Life ran through their Mid-South competition this year with ease compiling a perfect 8-0 season and winning their games by an average margin of sixty points. Central Washington (CWU), contrastingly, had a see-sawing season winning some games by mammoth margins but then being upset in others, consistency will be key to them making a run. Todd Thornley, CWU’s head coach, attests that the inconsistencies are a virtue of his very young squad, “The see-sawing is reflective of a very young team (only 3 graduating seniors in starting 15 this year) so we are constantly learning individually and collectively. Our team has matured a lot playing a tough schedule so now consistency relies on us applying ourselves mentally to every moment of the game. If we can do that, we have a chance to make a run at things here.”
CWU will have to limit mistakes, and rely on the lessons learned this season if they are to have any chance of winning their first-round matchup. Regardless of the result this experience will indisputably prove to be a valuable learning experience for the young CWU team.
#8 Texas A&M v. Lindenwood, 3pm EST Saturday, April 14th:
A Preseason warm up will now turn into a postseason rematch as Lindenwood, will make the trip down to the Lone Star State to take on Texas A&M. The Aggies were one of the last teams to qualify, as they got in last weekend via the Red River Conference Championship. Lindenwood, while they weren’t guaranteed a spot until the bracket was released would have been pretty confident, having been ranked 5th for the majority of the year.
In their preseason show-down it was Lindenwood who were the victors, but Lindenwood knows they will have to work for everything they get from Texas A&M. “We were impressed with their dedication to tackling and defense. They made us earn everything that we accomplished, I am certain this match will be no different,” added Josh Macy, Lindenwood’s head coach. James Lowery, The Aggies’ head coach expects a physical match up too, “I expect physicality from 1-23, immense skill-sets and smart Rugby players. I expect more of the same, they were only a game into their preseason, so am expecting sharper and cleaner play across the field. The boys will need to be sharp for 80 minutes and they’re up the challenge.”
The Aggies, who by Lowery’s admission, enjoy playing a modern game allows them to embrace their ability and express it will be hoping their creative spirits are not stymied by a Lindenwood team which builds itself on a defense that eats up space and has rarely let in more than a try. Both teams will be looking to flex their defensive muscles, and this game could be decided by which team breaks through first. It is shaping up to be an absolute arm wrestle and it will be available live through FLO Rugby.
#1 Saint Mary’s v. #16 Cal Poly, 5pm EST Saturday, April 14th:
Two conference rivals go toe to toe this weekend as Saint Mary’s hosts the Cal Poly Mustangs. Saint Mary’s and Cal Poly have faced off once already this year, and that match proved to be a spark plug for the mustangs. Prior to that game the Mustangs had been experiencing a fairly underwhelming year, but after coming just shy of pulling off the upset they have turned into one of the hottest teams in the country. They will be looking to channeling their momentum into this first round match according to their head coach James Tesoriero, “we are building well into the playoffs. We have been making small but steady progress in each game, and will need to take a big step further to get the win this weekend. There is a confidence and tight cohesion in this group.”
Being conference rivals they know what to expect from Saint Mary’s and how to limit opportunities, “St Mary’s are exceptionally skilled at scoring from broken play and turnovers, and so limiting turnovers and our reactions when ball is turned over will be key. We will need to get the upper hand in the set pieces (scrum, lineout, kickoff) to ensure we don’t give SMC too much ball,” Tesoriero added.
The Gaels who have won three of the last four national championships will be confident in their ability to repeat, but know they cannot afford to take a team like Cal Poly for granted. Their head coach, Tim O’Brien added, “They are a formidable, very talented opponent not to be taken lightly. we understand the challenge at hand”. Despite their recent successes they don’t feel the need the pressure that might suffocate other programs, “ The pressure is to put together a respectable competitive product on game day. The phrase we like to use is that we’re expected to make a great soup but we can’t shop for the ingredients,” noted O’Brien.
This game will be available through FLO Rugby.
#3 Cal v. #14 Grand Canyon, 5pm EST Saturday, April 14th:
Just down the road from Saint Mary’s, Cal will host D1A newcomer Grand Canyon. Cal has been one of the most storied teams in College Rugby history, and having returned this year from the Varsity Cup they will now look to reassert themselves. Grand Canyon on the other hand is one of the youngest programs in the country and are enjoying their first year on the D1A stage.
GCU burst onto the stage this year, playing a multitude of strong programs and more often than not coming out on top. They will be hoping Saturday is no different. They know if they are to pull off the upset they cannot be overwhelmed by the occasion or the opponent. GCU’s head coach Cam Wyper noted, “We need to focus on our own game and not be overwhelmed by the occasion, for us we will roll into this match just like any other. Execution and competing at set piece will be our main focus.”
Despite being the new kids on the block Wyper has faith in his squad, as he admits a lot of the credit for the success of their debut season comes down to their work ethic. The Lopes will need more than just work ethic on Saturday, but Cal knows what GCU is capable of, and will be doing everything within their power to avoid becoming another victim of GCU’s success. This game will be available through The Rugby Channel.
#4 BYU v. #11 Arkansas State, 5pm EST, April 14th:
The final match of this weekend will pit two of the most successful programs in the country against one another, as the BYU Cougars host the Arkansas State Red Wolves. The Cougars had a successful season only losing two games, both of which were to #1 Saint Mary’s. Arkansas State had a good Spring, but playing one of the toughest, if not the toughest schedules, hindered them slightly.
Both teams will like their chances to advance through the bracket and wind up in Santa Clara on May 5th, but they both know they will have to overcome a massive stumbling block this weekend. Arkansas State’s head coach Blake White admitted as much when asked what the factors to a deep run would be, White responded, “Keys to a successful run will be first getting past BYU, if you can beat BYU you can play with anyone. I expect from BYU what they’re known for. Being big and imposing their will. They’re very well coached and are relentless in putting pressure on their opposition.”
Neither team will be looking at the number next to their opponent’s number, as they know their opposition has every chance of winding up with the #1 next to their name on May 6th. This game will be available through The Rugby Channel.