D1A programs keeping busy following fall regular seasons

D1A Rugby: D1A programs keeping busy following fall regular seasons
Photo Credit: Jonathan Price
Spring has a different meaning for many, and for some teams in D1A it means keeping busy after wrapping up regular season play in the fall. This week we checked in with a handful of ranked teams, including some Canterbury Top 20 squads, who are competing off the radar.

Wheeling Jesuit
Finishing with 25 points in the East conference, Wheeling Jesuit transitioned to sevens in the New Year. In February, the Cardinals captured second in the Clemson Scrum For the Cure, and most recently participated in the Las Vegas Invitational

For head coach Thomas Duffy, the Cardinals ultimate goal is to be a powerhouse in both 15s and sevens. Splitting time between the two is not only benefiting towards that goal, but also giving plenty of WJU players plenty of time on the pitch.

“We have foregone any postseason 15s playoffs in the spring. Jesuit wants to be competitive in 7s so we focus on it only in the spring,” said Duffy. “I keep only 30 out of the squad of 66 from 15s. We have some experienced freshman playing key varsity roles in sevens. As a matter of fact, the freshmen have scored the most amount of tries this sevens season, thus far.”

Among those freshmen are full back George Roscoe and Benji Clipstone, who led the Cardinals offense in the Scrum For the Cure with five and four tries, respectfully. Fellow freshman wing Nick Vento was named Player of the Tournament as well by Cardinals coaches for having played the entire tournament from start to finish without being substituted or needing any rest time.

While not with the team this spring, All-American WJU hooker Peter Malcolm is competing away from the team with the USA Rugby Men’s Eagles after being called up in late January. In the first contest against Uruguay, Malcolm did not disappoint as the lineout thrower, and paid huge dividends in the scrum en route to a 29-23 USA win.

Wheeling Jesuit’s next test was set to be in the upcoming days as hosts of the WJU Collegiate 7s. Unfortunately due to inclement weather, fellow teams elected to pull out and the tournament is subsequently on hold with a hopeful rescheduling for early April. With that on hold, the Cardinals will look forward to the Notre Dame College 7s on March 18.

#13 Colorado State
Out West the Rams have been busy in 15s action, with plenty of opportunity for A-side and B-side squads. It’s the start of prep time for the fall, and for head coach Rod Hartley that means watching closely for the next on-field leader.

“We tend to keep things pretty consistent with how we approach each season,” said Hartley. “The team made a decision to focus on the 15s game a few years ago, so we really view the spring season as an opportunity to bring in development side players that have shown the skill development and dedication to increase their fitness into the senior squad.”

The spring is a challenging part of the year according to Hartley. This time of year it usually means losing top performers to graduation, injury or eligibility. But it also means putting fresh faces on the pitch, learning new positions and handing leadership over to a new set of seniors, highlighted by All-Conference prop Jaron Beerline. It is a steep learning curve, but Hartley sees confidence and improvement each and every practice.

“One of the strengths of this team is the character of the athletes both in the wider training group and in management positions,” Hartley added. “These are great young men who work extremely hard both on and off the field and support each other and that has created a culture that is fun to be part of.”

Plenty of players that are worthy of larger leadership roles in 2017; this includes 1st Team All-Conference Rams Anton Barlow, Ryan Nedbailo and Liam Wynne.

Since the New Year, Colorado State has duked it out locally with the Denver University and Utah State. In the DU game specifically, the squad was rusty admittedly, but also saw several new starters get their feet wet and build confidence. Hartley was satisfied with the Rams’ initial spring outing, most notably on defense in a 33-17 win.

“It was the perfect game for us as it allowed us to see our deficiencies and to look at players at different positions and we were able to work on issues specifically in the lead up to our next game against Utah State,” Hartley commented.

CSU followed up with a 50-24 win versus Utah State, taking lessons learned against the Pioneers and putting them to work early. In that contest adjustments turned into advantages in the scrum, created turnovers and dominating lineouts. Overall Hartley’s players are exhibiting good growth.

“We have some challenging games coming up after spring break against the Denver Barbarians, Glendale D2 squad, BYU and Wyoming. With a view to keep developing this young side with some tough matches moving forward.”

#19 Air Force
The Zoomies secured the West conference in the fall but continue to battle in one of the toughest spring schedules in preparation for the D1A National Championship. So far, the Academy has duked it out with #6 Lindenwood, #4 BYU and #1 Saint Mary’s, all blow out losses in the month of February.

“The team has played some of the toughest college teams in the nation for the spring schedule in order to prepare for the playoffs in April,” said head coach Denny Merideth. “The challenges of playing the top teams continue to lead our players on a path of improvement in both style of play and teamwork under pressure.”

Most recently Air Force fell close to #15 Arizona 30-28 in the Las Vegas Invitational. Despite the notches in the loss column as of late, the schedule remains a big testament to the Zoomies’ build up to May

In the meantime Merideth is giving everyone he can an opportunity on the pitch in these games, building competitiveness while finding all the right pieces as the postseason approaches.

“Unfortunately we saw the loss of five of our key players in the fall whose shoes had to be filled very quickly from the B-side roster and those players are becoming more skilled with every match on the A-side,” Merideth added. “Secondly, we have intentionally made early substitutions from the bench in all of our A-Side matches in an effort to continue to build experience among those competing for slots on the A-Side.”

Seniors Mitch Cochell and Dylan Brown were away from the team in early January due to being invited to the All-American Identification Camp in California. Their leadership made in impact upon return, but junior lock Austin Lyons has continued his impressive fall play in recent outings, as well. Additionally, the Zoomies have enjoyed the return of senior lock Hunter Hancock after suffering a bad ankle injury a few months ago.

Air Force has Colorado State on tap March 18 to wrap up spring season before shifting gears to the National Championship.

#9 Indiana
Late night practices and 15s competition are keeping the Big 10 Champions fresh on the pitch. Facing what the club claims as “one of its toughest spring seasons to date,” it comes at no surprise that they are treating these months as postseason prep. So far both the A-side and B-side squads have gone up against Indianapolis Impalas and #8 Arkansas State.

Both sides won against IUPUI and lost to the Red Wolves, and with the postponement of the WJU 7s Tournament that means next up is Penn State on March 25. The game is definitely the biggest circle on the Hoosiers calendar in the New Year, hoping to avenge a 48-32 loss a year ago. If the team’s offensive prowess from the fall is any indication (over 60 points scored on average per game), it could mean a prime matchup with a respectful rival.

The team has been without a few of its notable players however. All-American center Bryce Campbell for instance has been busy with the Men’s Eagles in the Americas Rugby Championship. Meanwhile Alex Dorrier, Ty Graham, Brian Hannon and Jake Hidalgo participated in Las Vegas Invitational with the Chicago Lions, who went on to win the the Aces Division. Indiana’s roster should be back to full strength in the coming weeks, and together will be a formidable foe in the D1A Playoffs. The club will then shift to sevens action leading up to the Collegiate Rugby Championship in June.