First Round playoff preview

D1A Rugby: First Round playoff preview
CP Team.jpg

Photos: Ed Navarrow (homepage) Karen Drinkwater (right)

BOULDER, Colo. – Teams seeded five through eight for the 2014 D1A Playoffs will all be on the pitch this Saturday to determine who will move on to the National Quarterfinals.

The higher-seeded team will host the matches, all of which are interconference games. Team’s financial limitations prevent many programs from traveling great distances to compete against D1A teams from other regions of the country. The D1A playoffs will help determine the strength of conferences, and of course the individual teams competing for a National Championship.

Here is a closer look at Saturday’s first round matches:

Colorado State @ Santa Clara

Santa Clara has been one of the surprise teams this season in D1A. The Broncos are only two years removed from competing at the DI-AA level, but head coach Paul Keeler has acclimated his team in a hurry. Santa Clara’s 5-1 mark in the California Conference is impressive, but wins over UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis by a combined six points show the Broncos might be vulnerable against Colorado State.

The Rams started the season dropping their first two matches, but finished by winning three of their final four, including a 19-point win over Colorado and a 27-point blowout of Wyoming. Colorado State’s improvement and two-match winning streak should give the team plenty of confidence heading into its match with Santa Clara.

Players to watch:

Kyle Dunn, Santa Clara – The outside center has been a key component in Santa Clara’s backline all season. One would expect a big game from Dunn, as he has come up big when needed most, and now that the season is lose or go home, he will be needed.

Luke Engelhaupt, Colorado State – Also an outside center, Engelhaupt has not found the try zone often this season, even though he has been an effective runner for the Rams. Colorado State would like nothing more than for Engelhaupt to have his breakout game come in Santa Clara Saturday.

West Point @ Davenport

Army is a bit of an unknown commodity heading into the first round. The Cadets missed out on the East’s fall season due to a team suspension, but have played well in 2014 since the suspension was lifted. West Point put up impressive numbers during a three-match tour of Texas, and played Navy tight in a losing effort recently. Still, without a marquee win to lean on, it is unsure how the Cadets will react when they step on the pitch with a team from the mighty Mid-South.

Davenport finished a disappointing 0-6 in the Mid-South, but kept just about every match close for a full 80 minutes. A 46-0 blanking of Clemson just before the Mid-South season supports the strength of the Panthers and shows the team is very capable of outplaying and even dominating teams not as stout as its Mid-South rivals. Keep in mind, this team lost its leader and best player, JP Eloff, in January due to a torn ACL.

Players to watch:

TJ Rowe, West Point – Rowe is a dangerous attacker from the fullback position, as he showed against Iona when he dotted down a hat trick for himself. He has also been very accurate with his foot when it comes to handling the team’s conversions.

Sondai, Adjei, Davenport – West Point has a physical side, which Davenport will be able to match with the help of Angus MacLellan and Gabe Sochanek in the Panthers’ front row. However, look for Davenport’s outside center, Adjei, to put the Cadets on the back foot with gashing line breaks.

San Diego State @ Colorado

San Diego State has had a bit of an up-and-down season. Against the bottom half of the California Conference, the Aztecs have played well and the scores reflect that. San Diego State is coming off of a 31-10 loss to Cal Poly, and it would have been nice to see the Aztecs compete against Saint Mary’s better than it did in its 99-point loss. Both of those matches were at home, so maybe going on the road to the Rockies will benefit San Diego State.

Colorado came out of the West Conference gates hot. The Buffs won their first four matches to take control of the West, but subsequently lost their final two conference matches to Colorado State and Air Force. If Colorado allows Tuesday night’s loss to the Zoomies affect the team negatively, San Diego State could pull off the upset. If the brief losing streak motivates the Buffs, however, then they could very well run the Aztecs off of the field.

Players to watch:

Kalei Konrad, San Diego State: It bodes well for the Aztecs that their best player wears the number 10. Konrad has an opportunity to control the game from the flyhalf position, and playing on the road it will be important for him to do so. Even with an accurate and opportunistic boot, Konrad will have to pick his moments wisely. Colorado has a solid back three and will make opposing team pay with its counter attack off of a poor kick.

Zach Savage, Colorado: The Buffs could benefit if the team’s outside center and backs captain has a big game. At inside center, Brian Wanless draws a lot of attention with his size and downhill running style. If Savage can link with Wanless he could be freed up to make a few long breaks and find the try zone.

Wyoming @ Cal Poly

Following an impressive 31-19 win over Air Force, Wyoming is in the midst of a three-game losing streak. The Cowboys lack experience, so traveling to California for a playoff match may be trouble for a side that is still wet behind the ears.

Cal Poly has regrouped well following its 31-28 loss to Santa Clara. With recent wins over Dartmouth, Sacrament State, and San Diego State, the Mustangs should have a fair amount of momentum when Wyoming rolls into San Luis Obispo. Also, several players on the Cal Poly side reached the semifinals of the 2013 D1A playoffs, giving the Mustangs far more meaningful experience than its first-round opponent.

Players to watch:

Alex Knowles, Wyoming: Playing a position that requires experience, flyhalf Alex Knowles is one of the more knowledgeable and talented players on the Wyoming roster. His play will be crucial to the Cowboys’ ability to hang with Cal Poly. It would be beneficial to Wyoming’s chances if Knowles can feed his dangerous center, Bobby Watckins, whenever he has a chance.

Andrew Early, Cal Poly: The Mustangs have game-breaking runners in Will Campuzano and Matt Long, while Early is more of a bruiser from his inside center position. Cal Poly should feel confident in its abilities to outplay Wyoming straight up and avoid risking extra passes to get the ball to the edge. If Early is breaking the gain line, the Mustangs should be comfortable giving him the ball early and often, knowing its more experienced side will overtake Wyoming over 80 minutes.