Army opens spring schedule with California road trip

D1A Rugby: Army opens spring schedule with California road trip
No. 7 Army begins 15s action this week in Southern California. First, the Black Knights are slated to face UCLA Thursday afternoon. The team will then make its way in to San Diego State territory to face the No. 10 Aztecs Saturday afternoon in a Canterbury Top 20 showdown.

The trip highlights a couple of challenges for Army. For one, it is the team’s first game since a 62-19 win against No. 19 Air Force in early November. Another is the team is in the midst of spring break, making for a lack of practice this past week. In addition players and staff were given the choice to travel with the team out of West Point, or meet in California if it meant some extra time with family. But the recent winter storm in the Northeast was an unexpected nuisance, and as a result a large portion of the squad will not arrive until this morning before the UCLA match.

In short, preparation has been less than ideal, but head coach Matt Sherman welcomes the test nevertheless.

“Our highest priority and expectation is that we continue to improve,” said Sherman. “We see these two games against quality opposition on the road in a short span, with some unexpected travel and personnel adversity, as an awesome challenge and opportunity to do so.”  

In the meantime, the 19 players that have already made the trip out West began final practice and preparations Wednesday night. It will most likely mean Sherman will be more select in picking the starting lineup in the first game.

UCLA has persevered through a rough spring thus far on the injury front. Constant injuries have left a sour taste in the Bruins mouth in the early part of spring and in the loss column. Despite this, UCLA has had a handful of players that have stepped up when needed, like Christian Bernard

The sophomore flanker has been especially impactful on defense as of late according to UCLA Head Coach and PAC Commissioner Scott Stewart. On offense, the extra effort turned in to a try versus USC and overall has made extra minutes count for the Bruins.

Unfortunately, Bernard was not immune to the injury bug either after going off in the loss against No.4 Cal and is expected to miss the game against Army.

“It has been a difficult season managing the injuries, but I think our front row has really worked hard and been a bright point all season,” Stewart added. “Andrew Alex, Pat LaFontaine and Brad Roth have been very consistent for us all year.”

The Bruins, however, cannot wait to square off with another Top 20 team looking to change gears and make up for errors in the game versus the Bears.

“We have to be better at looking after our own possessions versus Army,” said Stewart. “Our Line-out was not firing and just added more pressure on our defense. This game gives us a chance to try some new players that need some minutes in our lead up to the post-season.”

Army comes in to the match without the help of All-Rugby East lock Sean Berry who has gone down with injury. It is a hit in terms of on-field leadership, but Sherman was quick to point out several young bodies that have impressed this spring.

“I think our team overall has impressed as they’ve continued to improve, but I’ve been especially pleased with the progress of some of our younger guys,” Sherman commented. “Freshman like Nathan Brooks and Ben Vasta, and sophomores Austin Rutledge, Tony Smith, Drew Zagula, Jordan Jurosic, Eli Brown, and others have really been improving and impressing.  Competition for starting places, already competitive is only getting more fierce, and everyone is raising their game.”

The Black Knights are not without senior fullback Jake Lachina however, who was busy representing Army at the All-American Identification Camp at the beginning of the year. Sherman was quick to note that Lachina’s biggest impact has been his “continued humility” and “drive to work hard and keep improving.”

Waiting in the wings after UCLA is a San Diego State squad that is coming off an impressive 92-28 win over Santa Clara. Prior to that they were defeated by top D1A team Saint Mary’s, and expect Army to be as equally formidable even if on the tail end of a big road trip.

“There isn’t much we can carry from last week’s match into this week against Army,” said Aztecs head coach Alex Lichtig. “We’re essentially turning the page and focusing on the challenge ahead. Army has shown their ability to play at a high level with the results they have put up in the Rugby East. So we’re looking forward to the match.”

Jacob Zinda and Esmat Wardak have been highlights offensively for San Diego State as of late with three and five tries, respectfully. The pair’s running game has been an important factor specifically, according to Lichtig.

“Zinda has down well with ball in hand and is a powerful runner. However, as you’ll see a lot with finishers on the outside like Zinda, it’s the hard work the other 14 guys put in that creates the opportunity for him to finish,” he added. “With that said, Zinda is a strong and capable finisher, which is what we need on the outside. Esmat is our team’s opportunist. His incredible motor allows him to always run in support and he somehow finds space when it looks like options are closed down.”

The Aztecs sit comfortably in second in the California Conference behind the Gaels. With three games remaining after this weekend, the Aztecs hope to make a push in terms of momentum leading up to the D1A playoffs.