2017-18 was a landmark year for the Rugby East Conference. Two of their teams made deep runs into the playoffs and four teams finished the season ranked inside the top 20 nationally. The question left for them to answer, as they step into the 2018-19 campaign, is will they be able to do it again?
Rugby East has long been one of the premier fall collegiate conferences. It is easy to see why, with storied programs such as Penn State and Army being at the forefront each year. However, even by their illustrious standards, 2017-18 was a year that might have caught some people off guard. With four teams starting their season ranked in the top 20 nationally conference commissioner and St. Bonaventure head coach Andrew “Tui” Osbourne, is justified in believing nobody should be caught off guard this year.
“I don’t expect a drop-off,” explained Osbourne. “It will be a similar level of skill as last year because of the talent coming through from high school, rising classes, and the caliber of coaches we have in the conference.”
Army will be one of the best showcases of Osbourne’s beliefs. Last year they were one of the strongest performers, finishing 7th. However, they are one of the teams that have been hit hard by a large graduating class. Despite this head coach, Matt Sherman does not see that as a problem.
“We are very deep and competitive as a team.” Started Sherman, “this is a necessity going into the season, as we have graduated and commissioned some outstanding men, leaders and players that will be very difficult to replace. Everyone will need to step up our games.”
One of the biggest challenges that Army will face outside of filling the holes left by their graduating class, is competing with Penn State. The Nittany Lions, had one of the best seasons in program history last year when they advanced through to the semifinals after scoring a landmark victory against BYU. As a result they sit in the 5th position nationally.
Penn State won both their games against the Black Knights last year, winning each game by only one point. Look for their matchup on October 27th to be one of the most pivotal matches of the fall and possibly decide who will win Rugby East.
While Penn State and Army may be the entrenched favorites, there are plenty of teams that will be looking to rock the boat. Notre Dame College, now in their second year at the D1A level, will be looking to improve upon their 3rd placed finish from last year. With the element of surprise and a bevy of seniors gone, the Falcons will have to dig deeper in 2018-19 if they are to repeat or build upon their success a year ago.
Kutztown, is another team that promises to threaten the top of the table. Since their founding in 1984 they have been a preeminent force in collegiate rugby, and as recently as 2015 were the champions of Rugby East. Their 2017-18 campaign, while still a strong showing, will be one they are looking to improve on significantly. The Golden Bears finished fourth last year and went 3-3 in conference play. Last year they had six players receive All-Conference Honors and most of them not returning, it will be up to the young, but capable, hands of Dmontae Noble and Ryan Nolan to guide this team.
One team that saw a slight drop-off last year was Wheeling Jesuit who, after finishing third in 2016, mustered up a 5th place finish in 2017. Despite the drop in placing, Jake Fautley their head coach believes progress was made and is excited for what is to come in 2018.
“I thought the 2017-18 season was fantastic with some great matches and tests throughout the season,” started Fautley. “We developed on and off the field that saw great achievements by the players. We highlighted our intent to attack by scoring an average of 35 points a game in the conference. However, the biggest address going into this new season is the team’s defense.” Wheeling Jesuit conceded an average of 45 points a game last year.
The Cardinals have been busy bolstering their team over the off season. A successful bout of recruitment has seen their depth improve, something they were in desperate need of. Last year their squad was only 25 deep, this year they have added an additional 14 players to last year’s total. Fautley noted there is an excitement about the team’s potential this year.
Fautley isn’t the only one who is feeling the hype around his team, Osbourne thinks they have a chance to ruffle some feathers. “I expect Wheeling Jesuit to have a good year, they’ll come out guns blazing and with their new recruits prove to be a very competitive team.”
As for Osbourne’s men, the Bonnies, they too have brought in a significant recruiting class; and after an intensive preseason camp, he will be looking for his team to compete immediately. “We have some good recruits coming here, but at this stage I don’t know what will happen,” Osbourne explained. “At St. Bonaventure, we’re expecting to be competitive, but we also expect every team to be good and others will be doing the same.”
Buffalo has already started to prove this point ardently, in their first two preseason games against Syracuse and Cortland. The Bulls have averaged a hair under 50 points a game in their opening two matches, while conceding less than 30 combined points. It remains to be seen if their preseason success can be replicated in the regular season, but they’ll find out shortly. The Bulls open their schedule against Notre Dame College 9/8, and after suffering a heavy defeat to them last year the Bulls will be able to measure up just how far they have come in the past few months.