High profile nonconference matches highlight Mid-South preparation

D1A Rugby: High profile nonconference matches highlight Mid-South preparation
Photo Credit: Steve Zomberg (left) & Travis Prior (right)

BOULDER, Colo. – It’s not the largest conference in D1A Rugby; in fact, it’s the smallest. However, the Mid-South is undoubtedly the toughest conference in all of college rugby.

Like California and Red River, the Mid-South will play its conference schedule during the spring semester. While league play won’t open until Feb. 27 when Lindenwood visits 2015 National Championship runner-up Life, the three-team conference has been staying plenty active.

Life has had a busy fall off the pitch with Tui Osborne stepping down as head coach, and the subsequent promotion of long-time Life assistant Scott Lawrence. Other than the coaching change, rugby activities have been business as usual in Marietta, Ga.

The Running Eagles’ 12-player freshmen class is getting acclimated to life on campus, and college rugby. The dozen student athletes new to Life, as well as players pushing for a role on the team’s first XV, will have plenty of opportunities to show how they’ve progressed thus far in training. Life’s JV side will have nine contests between now and the aforementioned conference opener against Lindenwood.

As for the second-ranked Running Eagles’ varsity side, a few upperclassmen have already seen the pitch as part of Life’s Elite Training Group. The others will get their first chance to lay a shoulder into someone in another colored jersey Oct. 16 against Atlantic Coast Rugby League Champion Clemson. Additional nonconference fixtures are in the books against Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference Champion South Carolina Jan. 30 and a second contest versus Clemson Feb. 6.

Lindenwood’s deep and rugby-hungry roster has already faced opposition this fall. A developmental Lions side, which is effectively the program’s third team, has already played five of its seven fall matches, going 2-3 in the process.

“Our development program has been great for the introduction of collegiate rugby to our new players, and for our returning players receiving valuable playing time,” described Head Coach JD Stephenson. “They have had some tough challenges, and put in some gutsy performances. There are definitely some players who will be in the mix to compete for spots on out first and second XV in the spring.”

Several returning players from Lindenwood’s second consecutive run to the D1A Semifinals have had plenty of ball in hand, but in a different version of the game – touch rugby. Just this past weekend, a dozen-plus Lions were in Orlando, Fla., to compete in the USA Touch Rugby Nationals.

“It was a great experience for our program and our players,” Stephenson said. “The refinement in different skill sets, and, more importantly, the decision making under pressure and fatigue is beneficial to all rugby players.”

Those skills will need to be sharp as the first XV will soon begin one of the most rigorous nonconference schedules in the country. First, the Lions head east to play three Ivy League schools in five days, beginning Oct. 31 against Dartmouth. In January, the team will make its way to California to play defending National Champion Saint Mary’s, as well as Santa Clara. In addition, third-ranked Lindenwood has February games against LSU, Alabama, and Arizona.

“Our nonconference matches are to not only play the very best, like Saint Mary’s, and gauge where we are as a program, but to take ourselves outside of our comfort zone and play quality programs from the east coast and also the south,” Stephenson said of his program’s deep and diverse schedule.

Staying true to form, fifth-ranked Davenport is stockpiling competitive minutes in 15s during the fall. A year after splitting a home-and-away series with the University of Western Ontario, the Panthers began their fall campaign with a Sept. 3 loss to the Mustangs of Western Ontario.

Since its opening defeat, Davenport has picked up wins over Western Michigan and Bowling Green, while taking one on the chin against senior club side Chicago Lions – who are off to an impressive 4-0 start to the Midwest Division I season.

In the next three weeks, beginning with an Oct. 17 showdown versus No. 9 Indiana, the Panthers have three more matches against strong collegiate squads.

“We do our best to get the guys quality competition as often as possible in the fall,” Davenport lead man James Wood said. “But the reality of it is that the Mid-South is a different animal altogether, and is difficult to emulate.”

Speaking of realities, Wood and his staff have to face the truth of losing several players who have helped to drive the Davenport program to national prominence. Included in that group are All-Americans JP Eloff, who is playing fly half for the undefeated Chicago Lions, Angus MacLellan, and Gabe Sochanek.

“We did have a number of standout guys graduate this past spring, and it would be easy for us to lean on that as an excuse if things don’t go right for us,” admitted Wood. “However, I can guarantee that we’re not the only club dealing with trying to fill spots vacated by long-time starters. It’s the nature of the business in college rugby, so you really can’t spend time worrying about it.”

Davenport appears quite confident that potential replacements, like center-turned-fly half Noah Zomberg, will get caught up to speed sooner than later.

“The guys we have stepping up understand the expectations that come with their new roles, and have all been working hard to fill the shoes of their predecessors,” Wood said. “You can’t expect anyone to be a carbon copy of the player they are replacing, but if each of these guys plays to their strengths, I think we can prove to be a tough out for anyone we line up against.”

No two teams in the Mid-South are taking similar paths to preparing for their spring seasons. However, each program is led by individuals with track records, proving they know what it takes to get ready for what’s shaping up to be another exciting year in the mighty Mid-South.