CHARLOTTE, NC. – The main attraction at the Nov. 21-22 ACRC Bowl Series is the match between No. 2 Life and No. 3 Army.
Life, given its dominance over the past few seasons, has been pegged to play the winner of Rugby East at the Bowl Series since the beginning of the fall. Many were anticipating Kutztown to prevail in the East and head to Charlotte to play the Running Eagles. However, that all changed Oct. 25 when Army snuck past the Golden Bears, 34-30, to take control of the conference. Now 8-0 and Rugby East Champions, Army will be the team to give Life its best shot Nov. 22.
The two squads enter Saturday’s big game at different points of their 2014-15 seasons. Army has already completed its conference schedule and is looking to tie a bow on a remarkable fall season. Meanwhile, Life does not get into the teeth of its schedule until after the New Year.
However, just because the Mid-South season is played during the spring semester does not mean the Running Eagles haven’t had opportunities to square off against opposition. Life’s JV unit has played five matches thus far this fall, while the team’s more experienced players have seen quality minutes with the club’s Elite Training Group. Most recently, the entire undergrad program has come together to begin its run for a third straight appearance in the D1A Final.
“This group has been working together since our last ARP (Atlantic Rugby Premiership) match, which was four weeks ago,” said Life’s Dan Payne.
Payne is convinced his team will be well prepared for the top-five clash, and believes if things do not go accordingly against Army it won’t be for a lack of preparation, but because of Army’s game plan.
“We’ll be okay from a continuity perspective. We’re in a good situation where we have 45 – almost 50 – undergrads who can create some really competitive scrimmages just among one another,” Payne continued. “If anything doesn’t go to plan on Saturday it won’t be because of a lack of continuity on our end, but because of the strength of Army and how good they can play the game.”
Army’s rise to No. 3 in the Canterbury D1A Top 20 has come as a revelation to most rugby circles. Given the extreme amount of youth in the Black Knights’ first XV, few pegged Army as a National Champion contender in 2015.
“After the Life game we’ll probably revisit what our goals will be for the spring, but we’ve had a remarkable fall,” Army Head Coach Mike Mahan said. “We’ve had young kids step up and our few upperclassmen have played well and have been great leaders.”
While Mahan and his staff have been impressed with the way the Brothers have played this fall, the Army program is not exactly shocked they’ve performed above others’ expectations.
“We’re not in the business to lose anyway, so we were hoping to be in the position we’re in,” Mahan said of his undefeated side.
The climax of the ACRC Bowl Series will not only be of importance for Life as it marks its first real test of the season, but also because it will be the last match Payne will be on the sideline as head coach. Payne, who has been acting as Assistant Athletic Director since August, has recently been promoted to Athletic Director of Life University. The increased roll at the University will pull Payne away enough that he will step down from his coaching duties. Still, an ad for a head coaching position at Life won’t soon show up in the classifieds. With experienced and talented coaches Tui Osborne and Scott Lawrence already on the staff, and current senior club standouts Colton Cariaga and Shaun Davies eager to get involved in coaching, Payne’s absence is sure to be filled internally.
Even the emotions involved with coaching a program he helped construct one last time hasn’t prevented Payne from being squarely focused on the task at hand.
“They’ll give you 80 minutes,” Payne said of Army. “If you look at their contests, they’ve won quite a few near the 80th-minute mark. A lot of them have been close score lines, but it’s the score at the end that matters most. It says a lot of about the character and the resolve of their student-athletes.”
While thrilled to be undefeated, Army has not been too pleased with the fact it has needed a full 80 minutes to put its opponents away. Understandably, Army beat both Kutztown and Penn State by four points each and Air Force by just two. However, victories against Iona, St. Bonaventure, and Wheeling Jesuit have been closer than the Brothers would have liked.
“They’ve got the spirit that they’re going to win and they do what it takes to get it done,” Mahan said. “On the other hand, we’ve had some games where we didn’t play up to our potential, and that may have been a function of being young and not having the maturity to be more workman-like in our play.”
Army will need to be more than just workman-like to upset Life, but it seems a task the cadets are looking forward to.
“I know Life is a great program and Dan [Payne] is a great coach, said Mahan. “We’re expecting to play one of the top teams in the nation. It’s always a great experience to play a team of Life’s caliber, and it’s going to be a perfect ending to our season.”