BOULDER, Colo. – The Mid-South is down to three teams this spring after the departure of Arkansas State. Still, the conference is expected to be as heated as ever seeing as the remaining three squads were D1A Rugby Playoff teams in 2014, and currently sit in the top five of Canterbury’s D1A rankings.
The competition amongst Davenport, Life, and Lindenwood kicks off Saturday, Jan. 28, when Life hosts Davenport. Each team will play a home-and-away series against one another, and any conference match ending in a double-digit scoring margin should come as a surprise.
The Panthers were thought of so highly last year that they qualified for a place in the D1A Playoffs after failing to win a single Mid-South match. Davenport didn’t fare well against eventual National Championship runner-up Life last season, but lost its four matches to Arkansas State and Lindenwood by an average of less than seven points a contest. This year, the Panthers have already put together winning performances against both Arkansas State and Lindenwood – which will provide a much needed confidence boost ahead of its Mid-South schedule.
The fact No. 5 Davenport has found early success this season is encouraging considering the program is now under the supervision of James Wood. Kruger Van Biljon, who led the Panthers to two D1AA National Championships, stepped down at season’s end in 2014, and Wood was promoted from his assistant coach position.
“There has been a learning curve based on our styles of coaching, but I wouldn’t say it’s been too terribly dramatic of a transition,” said Wood. “We’ve tried to keep a lot of the same concepts while tweaking them a little bit.”
Wood is pleased with the familiar roster at his disposal, and believes the program’s talent has become so deep that he and his staff won’t be handing out jerseys with a snap of the fingers.
“We’re getting to the point where we have some difficult selections to make when it comes to the first XV, which is a good problem to have,” Wood explained.
There are a few players, however, who won’t be sweating come selection time. Angus MacLellan is an All-American prop who is on the edge of earning an international cap with the Men’s Eagles, and will be absent from the Feb. 28 match against Life because of his participation at this week’s domestic National Team camp. Fellow All-American front rower Gabe Sochanek is as consistent a performer as you’ll see in college rugby. The senior is everything you want out of a hooker in the set pieces, but far more dangerous than your average No. 2 with ball in hand.
There is a good chance Davenport would have found a way to win a Mid-South match last year had JP Eloff been healthy. Unfortunately, the All-American tore his ACL prior to the spring season and is just now ready to go a full 80 minutes. Playing fly half, Eloff’s knowledge, skill, and rugby pedigree will be a big boost to the Panthers.
A few positions at which Wood has options are in the loose forwards and centers. Conor Schilling and Ben Tietema have shown well in the back row, but Dominique Bailey, Reece Oberlin, and Carl Smith all have first-team experience, as well.
In the midfield, Anthony Welmers has moved to center since his return from a military tour of Afghanistan. Now bigger and stronger, Welmers brings size and physicality to a Panther back line that has missed such qualities in recent years. Veteran Mike Houston and speedy sophomore Sondai Adjei figure to earn minutes at center, as well.
Other back line players to keep an eye on will be Mason Baum, Reece Czarnecki, and Brady Gent. Baum is a senior and a load to bring down on the wing, while his counterpart, Czarnecki, is the team’s home-run threat, capable of breaking a long run at any moment. Gent filled in at fly half valiantly for Eloff last spring, but has since found a nice home at full back with Eloff’s return.
Davenport is excited about the upcoming season, and not only expects to win a conference match, but contend for the league Championship. Still, the Panthers know not to get too far ahead of themselves.
“You can’t afford to not show up on any given week,” Wood explained about the grueling Mid-South schedule. “If you don’t show up, you get beat. These teams are coached too well and are too disciplined.”
Davenport isn’t the only Mid-South team with a new head coach for the 2014-15 season as Tui Osborne, former Life undergrad assistant and head coach for Life’s senior club team and undergraduate sevens team, takes over for Dan Payne. Osborne’s promotion came on the heels of Payne being named the University’s Athletic Director.
The transition between head coaches seems to have been a fairly seamless one in Marietta.
“We keep things pretty consistent through the program from the men’s team to the undergrads to the JV team,” Osborne explained. “So, not much has changed.”
What will change for Life are a few faces on the Varsity side. All-Americans Joe Cowley, Oliva Auimatagi, and Zach Walker have each graduated, but the Running Eagles have a terrific freshmen class amongst others to fill the void. One player to help supplement the loss of those All-Americans will be Jake McFadden. After missing last season due to injury, the return of the 2013 All-American will boost Life’s back line.
“Jake is playing his best rugby right now, and is probably the fittest he’s ever been,” said Osborne.
McFadden’s downhill running style and sure tackling make him an excellent fit at inside center, and he should be seeing good ball thanks to the fast-improving nine-ten connection of Marcus Walsh and Blaine Mcllroy. Walsh is new to the Life program, but has quickly inserted himself as the Varsity scrum half, while Mcllroy returns to fly half and figures to take over the kicking duties for the departed Cowley.
As he did a season ago, co-captain and danger-man Harley Davidson will see time at both outside center and wing. Just a sophomore, Davidson has already made a name for himself as one of the best back line players in college rugby. A steady group of attackers will compliment Davidson including Tyrus Baytops, Talib Clemente, Mikey Sanders, and Zander Van Schalkwyk.
The Running Eagles’ cupboard of forwards is far from empty just because the team will be without Auimatagi, Walker, and Parris Hollis – who was dismissed from the team. All-Americans Jake Anderson and Glen Maricelli are back in the fold at lock and number eight, respectively. Anderson is a prototypical college second rower who can dominate in the lineout, and who Payne described as the team’s best player a season ago. Maricelli, while not as imposing as Anderson, makes his tackles and seeks to cause havoc with ball in hand.
Two other forwards to keep an eye on in Marietta are Hiku Malu and Xander Daniels. Malu has a special combination of size and athleticism and is primed for a breakout season, while Daniels continues to be a tireless worker and jack-of-all-trades for the Running Eagles. Daniels has already contributed to Life’s success from the second and back rows, but the junior has added weight and is now set to take up a starting spot at prop in 2015.
The 2013-14 season was Lindenwood’s first in D1A Rugby, and was a major success by all accounts. The team managed to reach the Semifinals, but unfortunately were outclassed by eventual National Champion Saint Mary’s, 72-7.
“It was a humbling experience and a great experience,” Head Coach JD Stephenson said about the lessons learned from the one-sided loss to the Gaels. “It showed us that National Championships are not won overnight. They are made two, three, four, and in some cases five years in advance.”
Given the accomplishments of last season, it’s no surprise the program has aspirations of the highest magnitude – winning the D1A Rugby National Championship.
“If we can go out there and give an 80-minute performance every single week, I think we will be as competitive as any side in D1A,” said Stephenson of this year’s team.
With an athletic and deep roster, Stephenson and his staff have reason to hold lofty expectations. Leading a group of talented rugby players is All-American lock Michael Gierlach. Fairly quiet on and off of the pitch, Gierlach is the Lions’ unquestioned leader by example. Jeremy Leber is another All-American forward, and his experience and toughness will be key pieces to Lindenwood’s front row.
Loose forwards Tamatasi Paogofie-Buyten and Sebastian Kalm also figure to produce plenty of go-forward ball, and freshman Wes Parker will likely break into the first XV as a flanker at some point. Parker is a former High School All-American with enough toughness and athleticism to make up for his lack of collegiate experience.
In the back line, James Poli returns to the centers after having an All-American season in 2014. Poli is a smash mouth runner with skills to boot, and is fortunate to have plenty of talent surrounding him. Back three threats Morgan Findlay and Lunaile Tshuma have well-balanced skill sets rarely seen in college rugby, and can get behind defenses with either a step or a pass.
The aforementioned back line aces will be complemented by a host of teammates including Mickey Bateman, Sione Fangaiuiha, Gabe Farley, and Kolton Nelson.
The frigid temperatures and isolation of St. Charles, Mo. hasn’t allowed for an ideal amount of preparation for the week-in, week-out challenges Davenport and Life will present. Regardless, Lindenwood understands their funded program puts the the Lions in a much better position than most.
“We haven’t had the outdoor preparation of a California-based team, however, we aren’t complaining,” Stephenson said. “We know what we have here, and so do our players when they sign up to play at Lindenwood. If anything, it just means more whiteboard session, more watching of film, and thinking of the game.”
Lindenwood is hosting a high school tournament this weekend before beginning its conference matches March 7 at Life University.