UCLA takes on Utah Saturday in a game that will likely decide who finishes 2nd in the PAC Rugby Conference.
UCLA is coming off two impressive PAC performances - a 32-10 loss to Cal where the Bruins led 10-0 at halftime, and a 109-0 shutout of Oregon State. Utah also has a shutout of Oregon State on its record - 58-0 on February 22 - and that result put them at 3-0 with UCLA and led on the schedule.
Newly-crowned US Army Coach of the Year Mark Drown said his Utah team is getting there. They are young, and the program is still rebuilding from its 2012-2013 suspension, but veterans Danny Christensen and Tonata Lauti have the newer players on track.
"We have won some games, but we have also been making some really basic errors," said Drown, who confessed to studying UCLA's game against Cal very closely. "We spent the week working on securing the ball. We know UCLA is very well coached and are very effective with their kicking game. We will have our work cut out for us."
"Mark Drown has done an excellent job with Utah," added UCLA Head Coach Scott Stewart. "What he's done to get that program back up and running is impressive. We know this will be really challenging. We've been trying to build to this part of the year, and the effort from the players has been there, and that's really pleasing."
Stewart said Utah is full of unknowns, but he, as had Drown, has been stressing ball retention.
"They counter on turnovers really well and they are good with the tap penalties, so we have to be disciplined and careful," said Stewart.
Despite having some high-profile backs, Stewart said the Bruins forwards have been the highlight of the year so far.
"They have just worked really hard and are committed to winning ball," he said.
Meanwhile, the Utes know that this game will be harder than their recent efforts.
"I keep telling them, if you play rugby expecting never to be scored on, you're in the wrong game," said Drown. "What's important is how you rebound."
Speaking of rebounding, this game has other significance, in that it is Utah's first home 15s game since they returned from suspension.
USA MNT Head Coach Mike Tolkin has named the list of players who will assemble next week to push for a spot on the World Cup Qualifier team.
The group of 28 players will go through their paces at Life University in Marietta, Ga., and then players who are overseas will arrive in the USA a week later. Out of those two groups Tolkin will select his team to play Uruguay March 22 in Monetevideo, and March 29 at Atlanta's Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
Returning Eagles from last fall's November tour include Derek Asbun, Joe Cowley, John Cullen, Shaun Davies and Seamus Kelly. Eric Fry is one of the few overseas players able to break away early, and he will also be in Marietta.
Tolkin said he likes the competition for places.
"Guys are really having to compete one-on-one against each other," he said. "Earning a place on the squad continues to become much more challenging."
The Eagles will train March 11-15 and scrimmage Life University on the final day before Tolkin selects approximately 11 players to travel to Florida, where the overseas professionals will arrive.
Several of the players in this list have excellent chances of making the team, while others are in camp for the first or second time.
Adam Siddall is named in the list but still has to pass a fitness test.
USA Preliminary Camp Derek Asbun - New York Athletic Club Garrett Brewer - St. Mary's College Chris Chapman - New York Athletic Club Joe Cowley - Life University Miles Craigwell - Seattle-OPSB John Cullen - Seattle-OPSB Shaun Davies - Life University TC Elliott - Seattle-OPSB Zach Fenoglio - Glendale Raptors Eric Fry - London Scottish RFC Troy Hall - New York Athletic Club Graham Harriman - James Bay RFC Seamus Kelly - University of California Olive Kilifi - Seattle-OPSB Kelly Kolberg - Dallas RFC Chad London - Glendale Raptors Dave Martini - Santa Monica RFC Tim Maupin - Olympic Club/USA 7s Program Adam Siddall - USA 7s Program* Louis Stanfill - Seattle-OPSB Kyle Strohman - Life University Kyle Sumsion - BYU Shalom Suniula - Seattle-OPSB Phil Thiel - Life University Tai Tuisamoa - Old Mission Beach Athletic Club Matt Trouville - Seattle-OPSB Zach Walker - Life University Nick Wallace - James Bay RFC
Life University escaped a tough and hard-nosed Lindenwood 19-15 Friday night in Missouri.
Lindenwood led 15-13 with eight minutes to go, but Life put in enough work on offense to get two Joe Cowley penalties to put the game away. Even so, Lindenwood were attacking in the Life 22 when the Running Eagles were able to hold the ball up in contact to earn a scrum and end the game.
Life scored their lone try through prop Glenn Maricelli, with Cowley adding a conversion and a penalty, while Lindenwood added a try from Jeremy Leber to make it 10-5 Life at halftime.
With points at a premium Life struggled to break through in the second period, but did get one more Cowley penalty gave Life 13 while Lindenwood added another try, this one from center James Poli, and a conversion and penalty by freshman flyhalf Lungi Tshuma.
That made it 15-13.
Life looked to regain the lead with a break down the left sideline. The ball was kicked ahead and rolled to the corner, where Tyrus Baytops was there to poach from the Lindenwood defender. The ball didn't come out, though, and the play certainly could have been called for holding on. Instead, Life kept up the pressure, and eventually earned a penalty for offside about 40 meters out and on the left side. Cowley, with little fanfare, booted the ball over to make it 16-15.
Life came very close to scoring again, using the forwards to bash at the line. Once again there was a penalty, much closer in this time, and once again Cowley hit it to make it 19-15.
With time seemingly up Life failed to make touch on a clearance kick and had to make a series of tackles as Lindenwood worked their way to the Life tryline. But attempts by the Running Eagles to hold the ball up finally worked, and the game was done.
"They put our guys under a lot of pressure and we didn't react very well to it," said Life Head Coach Dan Payne, who saw his squad beat Arkansas State 34-7 last week. "Our set piece didn't execute, but that was possibly from pressure from our opponents. I do think the score flattered us last week and I knew this would be a tough game for us. We really had to claw our way out of trouble."
Lindenwood were led by their forwards, who stood up to the Life pack bravely. Sebastian Kalm was the leader of the pack on the day, and Shenal Dias and Leber at hooker were also impressive, denying Life solid possession.
"We made a few poor decisions, but you can't fault the guys at all," said Lindenwood Head Coach JD Stephenson. "the guys stepped up, and in a way a loss like this was right. The guys showed us and themselves they can compete, they belong, but they also know there's work to do. It just adds fuel to the fire."
Life 19 Tries: Maricelli Convs: Cowley Pens: Cowley 4
Lindenwood 15 Tries: Leber, Poli Convs: Thomas Pens: Thomas
Also on the Mid-South conference slate this weekend, Davenport at Arkansas State. Here are the standings as of now:
After a four-month break, the Mid-Atlantic DI club season gets back on track with four games this weekend.
Five teams remain in with a shot at finishing 1st in this highly competitive league, with leaders Baltimore-Chesapeake essentially tied with PAC, the Norfolk Blues in third having played two fewer games, and Schuylkill River in 4th have played one fewer.
(Pittsburgh Harlequins are 5th, and a little behind this leading group. They will need some help to get to 1st.)
"I thought we had a good strong finish in the fall and the guys were really positive about it," said Schuylkill River Head Coach Bill Jalbert. "The guys worked very hard over the break maintaining their fitness, and that was good because we weren't putting in all that extra work in training."
Like with other clubs, warmup matches for Schuylkill River have been rare because of the weather. Matched up against Raleigh in Raleigh, the Philadelphia club will have to hit the ground running.
Facing the sternest test might be 7-3 Potomac Athletic Club, which hosts the 5-4 Pittsburgh Harlequins.
Coach Ben Wiedemer said his squad looks better now than in the fall, when they were hit with injuries and several player getting married or having kids, thus putting them out of commission for a while.
"It is difficult to get guys switched back on," cautioned Wiedemer. "We were lucky enough to have a hit-out this past weekend with [DII power] Rocky Gorge. However, with all the snow, training has been tough for many of the east coast team."
Wiedemer said player development and continuity is hurt by the long winter break, but he recognizes that teams in the Northeast have the same issues.
Now with every team in the league playing 14 games, much of the schedule starts in March.
"It would seem that the games that have carried over from the fall are even more important with the new playoff format," said Wiedemer. " We have Pittsburgh, who we lost to in the fall, this weekend so we are not taking it lightly. This is no way to ease into the season, we have told our players that at this point we can't wait to improve, we need to play like we are in mid-season form."
Norfolk is the team with the most to do this spring, as the Blues have six games to play, starting with NOVA at home, a game they should win.
The Blues got a couple of warmup games, which they lost, but they were testing some new players.
"This weekend will be the first time I have most of our top players available," said Coach Chris Porter. "Every game has to be taken seriously or you let yourself open to taking a loss. We are preparing for NOVA the same way we do for every team. This spring we are continuing to focus on putting pressure on our opponents offensively and defensively."
This spring Cecil Garber joins the Blues back row with Fred Wintermantel and Kevin Mott to form an effective loose forward unit. Jacob Sprang, Sam Johnson, and Brett Keyes are all new players who could see time. But there will be little opportunity to just try guys out.
"We are approaching each weekend like a playoff game and our veterans enjoy playing under this kind of pressure," said Porter.
And Baltimore-Chesapeake is precariously on top of the heap, for the moment. They host Maryland. "With the carry-over of the schedule we tried to maintain a schedule that was new to us," said Coach Steve Elliott. "It was successful in one area; in years past midwinter training was individual and not particularly skill-development-based. This year, we did group work and followed a skill development format. It will continue to evolve and improve as we figure out how best to manage a nine-month-plus schedule."
Elliott called the weather for playing outdoors "horrific" in the early going. But, he added, it's been the same for everyone, so while the Brumbies might be undercooked, so is everyone else.
Looking ahead, the March 15 match between Norfolk and Baltimore-Chesapeake could possibly decide the league, although the two teams have a return engagement March 29. If one of those clubs sweeps that series, the other is in trouble and the winner has reason to celebrate. PAC has one of the easier runs for the top teams, although their March 22 clash at Schuylkill River could be problematic.
Mid-Atlantic March 8 Games Maryland Exiles @ Balt.-Chesapeake NOVA @ Norfolk Blues Schuylkiill River @ Raleigh Vipers Pitt Harlequins @ PAC
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