(Shaun Potgieter in last year's meeting. Mike Geib photo)
It’s another year and an entirely different competition, but the same two teams. St. Mary’s and Arkansas State play in Jonesboro, Ark. Saturday in the first round of College Premier Division playoffs. A year ago around this time, they met in Santa Barbara, Calif. in the first round of the DI playoffs.
That game ended 29-23 in favor of Arkansas State. The Red Wolves dominated the first half and led 22-3 at intermission, but the Gaels stormed back in the second half, only to fall short by six points.
There was some controversy, though, as photo evidence showed days later that a St. Mary’s try that was disallowed shouldn’t have been. The Gaels scored on the same possession the try in question was deemed held up, but precious time elapsed.
There’s no way to tell whether or not that disallowed try would have affected the way the rest of the match panned out, but Arkansas State coach Matt Huckaby doesn’t want to put his team in a similar situation Saturday and give the Gaels the chance to rewrite history.
If his team finds itself up three scores at halftime again, he wants his Red Wolves to extend the lead, not sit on it.
“You definitely don’t want to let them back in it in the second half, because they’re a team that’s capable of scoring a lot of points on you in a relatively short amount of time,” said Huckaby, “You can’t have a mental lapse, or else they’ll be right in it. We’re expecting a really tough, even team to our own, and we’re trying to mentally prepare for that this week.”
The Gaels got off to an obvious slow start that they couldn’t overcome last year against Arkansas State, and their 2009 exit from the postseason was similar. They trailed Army 33-0 at halftime of their Round of 16 game, and rallied to lose 33-26.
“We didn’t show up at kickoff time to play, and they really took it to us. We did have the run of play for 15 minutes in the second half, but insignificant when it’s all said and done. They were at their best when they needed to be, and they had us under an enormous amount of pressure and we didn’t deal with it well,” said St. Mary’s coach Tim O’Brien of the Arkansas State loss.
“We have not (started well) in the last two (playoffs). We were very poor, and each had a different type of build up. We’re a very different team every year, and I can’t put my finger on it. I’m accused of sometimes we’re too relaxed, but we’ve been very prepared.”
For most teams, a key part of the preparation process is breaking down their opponents’ game film to see where they’re weak, strong, vulnerable, etc., and this year, the CPD has a video sharing system that allows coaches access to said film. However, O’Brien doesn’t dwell on film study, because he says too much of it can have adverse affects.
“I will say that sometimes watching a lot of film on teams will sometimes lull you into a false sense of what your opponent is all about. You never get the speed, tempo, ferocity of what’s involved in a rugby match in watching it on film,“ said O’Brien.
“We spent a lot of time watching Army film (in 2009). We talked a little bit of some Arkansas State film last year. Didn’t help us. We watched some UCLA film the other day. We got our balls handed to us for part of that game. I think we need to be careful. There’s lots of bits and pieces you can pick up, but you’ve got to be careful what you pick up and how you apply it.”
O’Brien said he won’t watch the film from last year’s playoff match, because these are different teams that’ll play Saturday. He’s right. St. Mary’s was bit by the injury bug last season, losing several influential players, especially up front. This season, O’Brien couldn’t be happier with the health and performance of his pack.
“This is the best forward pack we’ve had since I’ve been at the college,” he said, “and we’ve got 10 forwards who can play in whatever combination we want to use.”
The backs, well, they’ve been a different story.
“Our backs have been, especially in the last month, extremely inconsistent, and we need to just find ourselves somehow,” O’Brien said. “Finding ourself in Jonesboro’s going to be a tough task.”
And it’s going to be even tougher without playmaker Tim Maupin in the midfield. At inside center, Maupin paired with freshman flyhalf Bubba Jones to create a very good interior backline, and it was Maupin who scored the game-winning try againt Central Washington earlier this season to put the Gaels in the playoffs. Maupin broke his leg last week in training.
While that injury is obviously a big blow, Arkansas State is dealing with worse.
All-American wing David Caswell, who scored nine points against the Gaels in Santa Barbara with his boot, was lost early in the season to an ankle injury. He will not be in action Saturday. All-American back rower Roland Evans, who scored a try in the last meeting, is questionable. Huckaby says whether or not he goes will be a game time decision. Same for All-American hooker Nardus Wessels. Both have been out of action since the April 2 win over Life. Back in the lineup, however, will be center Dean Gericke, who recorded a pair of tries against St. Mary’s in Santa Barbara.
Huckaby remains unwaveringly confident in his team, despite the possibility of three All-Americans watching from the sidelines.
“I still think we’ve got enough on the table to win this game. We’ve been doing it all year. Our reserves have stepped up tremendously to develop some identity outside of some big names who have been at our school forever, and if we get those guys back at any point, it’ll be sweet icing on the cake,” Huckaby said.
One of those young players who’s stepped up is freshman Dale Bates, who came to Arkansas State from Hawaii.
“He’s been a nice surprise. He’s really developed. He’s going to be big time in the following years,” said Huckaby. “Remember that name. I’m calling that one. He’s got some intangibles a lot of kids don’t have.”
Also stepping up in a big way this season have been Zac Mizell and Patrick Sullivan. Sullivan, a physical presence at flyhalf, has taken over the kicking duties since Caswell’s injury, and he’s a realistic All-American candidate. Mizell, who followed his brother, prop Jake, to Jonesboro, brings experience (he played with the Dallas Harlequins while in junior college), athleticism and skill to the back line.
With revenge on the line, some budding stars hoping to break through and, of course, a trip to the semifinals up for grabs, Arkansas State vs. St. Mary's is the most intriguing CPD quarterfinal.