This Saturday the Liberty Conference will play their first playoff series. Two semifinals will be played with the resulting championship match played the following weekend in the Liberty Bowl Series at Fairfield University. The semifinals will see Syracuse (winner of the Empire Division) take on AIC (representing the I-95, as Iona declined their position) and UMass (winner of New England) taking on Binghamton (Wild Card). It promises to be an interesting weekend of fixtures from first whistle to the last.
Syracuse vs. AIC:
One of the biggest surprises this season has been the play of Syracuse’s Hammerheads. While they are always a tough outing, few pundits had them going through to win their division, let alone doing so undefeated. According to Hammerheads head coach Bob Wilson, one of the main reasons behind their success has been their ability to recruit and draw in based off the university’s prowess. “We were very fortunate to get some players we weren’t aware of coming to the university, mainly because of the institution’s academic reputation,” Wilson explained. “We got a few extra students and we’ve bolstered our player strength and now have 64 members on the rugby club.” Syracuse will need all the depth that they can find this weekend against an AIC squad that is looking to make an impact in their first year at the D1A level.
AIC’s head coach, Corey Momsen has been pleased with his squad’s resiliency this year, but knows the hard work has only just begun; the real test comes this weekend. “We definitely have to compete every moment of every practice, every game,” Momsen noted. “Earlier in the year we were trying to find our team identity and after being a successful D1AA side we overlooked some of our matches early on which turned the tension back towards us. We have to fight for everything, nothing will be handed to us.”
Syracuse will make AIC work for everything this weekend, especially in attack. Wilson praised his defense for seeing them over the line in a couple of their closer encounters, “There have been a couple of close games but the spirit and effort, especially defensively, have been impressive. Really that’s what’s enabled us to win those close games.”
Both teams have flagged the breakdown as a potential game changing area of the match. Momsen and Wilson agree that the work rate of the forwards will significantly impact the outcome of the game. Momsen explaining, “Definitely looking at the breakdown. They’ve got big and physical forwards. They’re undefeated in their division and wouldn’t be in this situation without physical and disciplined forwards.” Wilson adding that the back row of AIC is of particular concern to them given their ability to get around the field.
Despite it being appearing to be a forwards battle, Momsen and Wilson both have highlighted backs as the potential game breakers for their side. For AIC, it will be their captains Nick Franklin and Cristian Ortega leading the way. “They’re great players, but they’re also great captains,” began Momsen. “They are very approachable and understand the laws of the game. They also know how to approach officials. During the games I’m quiet on the sidelines, I just make substitutions. My captains take it from there.” For Wilson and the Hammerheads it will be fullback Jean Eric van der Elst. “Van Elst came from Florida State, and was unknown to us, he is a very, very talented player.”
The other major factor in this fixture, is it won’t be played at Syracuse’s traditional home ground of Hookway Field. Due to the severe weather and a mud logged match played against Colgate, the game has been moved to a different field-one that is wider. This will suit AIC’s expansive abilities, but they could be hindered by the weather, as snow and a high of 37 is expected on Saturday, all of which in not conducive to AIC’s ambitions. The game is up in the air and will likely come down to who can control the elements and their fundamentals best.
UMass vs. Binghamton
Between these two teams there is only divisional loss between the two of them. UMass tore through the New England Division undefeated while, Binghamton suffered one loss at the hands of Syracuse. With both teams having a keen taste for victory, what could end up causing the difference between the two sides is their ability to respond to adversity.
If that is the case, UMass head coach Philip Ciccarelli feels confident in his team’s ability to pull it out. “I think the biggest lesson we’ve learned as a club is maturity,” Ciccarelli noted. “This year we were able to deal with adversity a little bit better and put all the pieces together.”
For Binghamton, they’ll be looking to avoid any chance of adversity through focusing on their discipline and keeping themselves out of hairy situations. “Toughest lesson learned this season has been turnovers and penalties,” mentioned Binghamton coach, Brian Grills. “This was particularly apparent in the first half of the Syracuse match back in October. We will emphasize continued pressure on UMass by forcing them to commit players to the tackle and rucks. Defensive speed in the backline will be key to disrupt and slow their attack.” Grills continued.
There will be an interesting dynamic within this match, as the two teams look to play different styles of play. For Binghamton, they have size on their side, and they tend to impose their will on other teams. UMass, is a big side, but at their own admission don’t have the same size as Binghamton. As a result, they will be looking to play the ball from sideline to sideline. Ciccarelli noting, “I think our biggest challenge we are going to face with Binghamton is physicality and size. We are a pretty big team, it’s going to be a challenge for us to be punched in the mouth a bit. We’re focused on contact and making tackles and being ready for the physicality.”
Grills noting Binghamton will have to be on their best behavior around UMass, “We have viewed a bit of film from this season. But first impressions are they have good discipline and look to move the ball wide quickly.”
When the going gets tough each team has a contingent that they’ll look to for inspiration. For UMass, it will come from their centers and #8 this according to Ciccarelli. “Our two centers have been unbelievable tackling wise and defensively. They’re line speed has been really good. For forwards, we’ve got great leadership in Terry Cullen our 8. He really drives the train.” Cicarelli also noted that Timmy O’Connor who is coming off a knee injury has been especially influential in games.
Binghamton are looking to their halves to set the tone. “We have a veteran side who looks to Brandon Healy #10 to lead the attack,” said Grills. “I am also looking for Freshman Mike Davitt #9, from Rye High School to keep the point of attack moving quickly out of the breakdown. He has only three starts this season with four tries and three conversions.”
It promises to be a clash between two strong teams. Binghamton’s experience could prove to be the difference in this match, although UMass has shown throughout their season, their youth and inexperience shouldn’t be held against them.