Arizona meets Baylor in anticipated Quarterfinal matchup

D1A Rugby: Arizona meets Baylor in anticipated Quarterfinal matchup
Photo Credit: Norma Salinas (left)
Fresh off a win over Air Force in the opening round, Arizona travels to Waco, Texas to take on Red River Rigby Conference winner Baylor in the Quarterfinal of the D1A playoffs. The game is slated for 2 p.m. CT this Saturday and will be streamed live by FloRugby.

The Wildcats find themselves in familiar waters in the quarterfinals just one year removed from a loss to Utah in the same round. For Baylor, this is uncharted territory in a season that has demonstrated the program’s largest growth in recent memory.

A convincing 51-7 win over the Zoomies last weekend has had the Arizona camp in high spirits all week. It erased the bitter taste of a lopsided loss to Utah in the PAC Conference finale. Head coach Sean Duffy commented that while his team performed well in the first half against Air Force, the second half was more focused on lowering errors and capitalizing on mistakes. Overall it met the team’s goal of avoiding slow periods during the game and keeping consistent.

Now on the verge of a semifinal appearance Arizona’s goal of defeating a second conference champion in the postseason means a cool head and playing better than the last 80 minutes according to Duffy.

“We do not know much about Baylor having not seen them this year, but we know winning any conference in the country is a feat, so we respect that,” said Duffy. “At this stage of the year there’s things you do against each opponent but it’s really a lot more about what we can do to improve. We have yet to play our best game but we know we’ll need to keep improving if we want another week together.”

Facing them is a well rested Bears team that equally want to be at their best at home.

“It’s really rewarding to know that all of our hard work this year isn’t going unnoticed,” said Baylor head coach Mason Hering. “Getting a bye in the first round and hosting a quarterfinal shows that the rest of the country knows what we are doing down here is special and something we’ve earned the hard fashioned way with sweat equity.”

The Bears enjoyed skipping the opening round after defeating LSU 25-22. A conference championship win was the exclamation mark on a surprising year for many in the D1A community in comparison to a three-win season in the Red River in 2016. In all, Baylor has been building towards Saturday’s home playoff game for nearly 10 years.

“Winning the Red River was a statement win for us no doubt but not so much for us as it was for everyone else. It legitimized our season to some extent to those outside of our doors but for us it was another step closer to our goal of competing for a national championship,” Hering added. “That’s the fuel right now. Our job’s not yet done on that one so we aren’t focused on past accomplishments, only on the big prize up for grabs.”

Saturday will mark the first time the two squads have met, and each side has their noteworthy playmaker to be prepared for in the unknown. For Arizona, that starts with the dynamic duo of Kyle Rogers at fly half and Matt Rogers at scrum half. The brothers both registered tries last weekend, a game that Duffy admitted the pair took control of.

“Having a pair of brothers in the half backs is an interesting setup, and I think Kyle pushes Matt more than I do,” Duffy added. “They have good chemistry having played together at Granite Bay [High School] a bit but where they really thrive is when we are getting fast ball, they are learning to make really good decisions at a fast rate, and really keep the pressure on defenses.”

The Rogers’ were quick to note from Hering’s end as well.

“What little I do know is if the Rogers are given time and space they can really pick you apart. They both are great distributors to a number of attacking weapons they can bring at you,” admitted Hering.

Baylor also will keep junior wing Ben Joseph in mind, who is coming off a two-try performance in the opening round. On the pitch the Bears have been led by eight man Pete Hamm all season long. A centerpiece in the program’s development, the senior captain was key in the game against LSU in the second half helping orchestrate long scoring drives.

Led by Hamm on the field, the Bears are looking to keep their storybook season rolling with a win in Waco.

“Pete and the rest of the team are pumped. It’s moments like this that define rugby careers and Pete has a big game mentality 24-7,” Hering commented. “He and the rest of the team leaders have held each other accountable all year, so preparations for this match have been focused and intense. We will be ready to give Arizona our best this weekend, that’s for sure.”

The additional surprising play of newcomer Abu Kamara was pivotal in that win against the Tigers as well, scoring a long distance try untouched which only fueled Baylor’s momentum in the second half. Like Hamm, Kamara has been a playmaker when it has been needed most in 2017. The same goes for Parker Vincent who’s reliable leg has helped the Bears all year, and a keen mindset in the backline to boot.

The winner of Saturday’s match will face the winner of San Diego State and Saint Mary’s in the semifinals.