Bringing their own brand of physical play up front, and skill in the backs, Davenport is probably the favorite to retain the national D1-AA men’s college title.
It’s easy to forget the Panthers won the whole thing in 2011, and return almost their entire lineup for 2012. Led by flyhalf JP Eloff, a legitimate All American and a player who can create scoring opportunities out of nothing, they have what it takes.
Where are the strengths for the DI-AA semifinalists? We try to give you players to look out for and a scouting report on each team.
JP Eloff you should know. The 7s and 15s All American sophomore is as good as it gets. He’s great running with the ball in hand, kicking from hand and kicking for points. He’s most likely the best player in all of DI-AA, but he’s not a one-man band.
Ryan Hargraves will jump off of your computer screen, too. He has an extremely high work rate, is a tenacious ball hound and a very effective ball carrier. He can tackle anyone.
Mason Baum is a big, strong, athletic wing. A U20 candidate, he is a threat to score with space. So is Lance Cavanaugh on the opposite wing.
Demecus Beach is a possible trump card. He will be the most physically imposing player on the field when Davenport faces Dartmouth. He is built like a prop and runs like a flanker.
But out of New Hampshire, Dartmouth has other ideas. Led by an outstanding pack, featuring All American Nate Brakely, and with Madison Hughes at fullback, the most exciting freshman back since … Eloff … Dartmouth also carries with it something that is very rare – complete faith in their game plan.
Dartmouth actually relishes tough games, and the way they play should see them through in a very difficult game. They can play champagne rugby, or meat and potatoes rugby. Either way, their philosophy remains the same – play whatever rugby you can in the other team’s 22. It works.
Derek Fish has flown under the radar somewhat the last year or so, but he’s a massive playmaker for Dartmouth. He usually delivers great ball and can create with ball in hand.
Paul Jarvis is the co-captain and No. 8. Not big for his position, he is smart, and almost like an extra coach on the field. Jarvis is a tackling machine.
Madison Hughes. He’s the x-factor. At fullback, Hughes is dynamic in the counter attack. If Eloff misfires on some kicks for territory, as he did in the final four last year, Hughes could make Davenport pay. A true freshman, he is already Dartmouth’s most dangerous ball carrier.
San Diego State is a team that beat the odds. Under coach Dan Payne they made the DI final four. Payne left to coach Life, and the Aztecs rebounded under Matt Sherman. Sherman left to coach Stanford, and to their credit, the players didn’t curl up and die. They took control of their destiny, found another coach, former USA 7s captain Matt Hawkins, and started winning rugby games again.
Hawkins has brought to the team a modern approach to playing, one that really resonates with the athletes.
Jamie Kelm doesn’t look an awful lot like All American brother Duncan Kelm. But he plays like him. Jamie, shorter and stouter, moves very well for someone wide-bodied enough to play hooker, and he hits like Bronko Nagurski. He runs and tackles as hard as anyone in the country, and he can break a team’s will in doing so.
Mike Shea, the Aztec captain, is a very good loose forward. His high work rate and tenacity garner comparisons to SDSU coach Matt Hawkins.
San Diego State has improved drastically over the season. They’re playing under their third coach in as many years, and they had to adjust to the style of Hawkins. But they’ve had time in the system now, and the improvement is evidenced by the back-to-back impressive wins over 2011 runner-up UCSB.
A common mission that resonates with the athletes describes Tennessee pretty well, too. Led by captain Matt Neuhart, they are, at the core, a bunch of Tennessee kids who have been playing high school and college rugby together for years.
They have emerged from maybe the best conference in the country. The Vols bested LSU and Florida, among others, in the Southeast Collegiate Rugby Conference regular season. Then they upended Florida State in the quarterfinals.
Matt Neuhart is the leader in the pack. The SCRC player of the year is a quality lineout operator and a good ball carrier.
Nick Evans scores tries for Tennessee in the midfield, but his most important role Friday will be tackling Kelm, Shea & co. If he can get go-forward ball on top of make tackles consistently, it will go a long way towards a Tennessee win.
Who wins these matchups?
RUGBYMag.com’s Alex Goff picks Dartmouth over Davenport in something of an upset. RUGBYMag.com’s Pat Clifton takes Davenport over Dartmouth.
In the other semi, Goff takes Tennessee and Clifton chooses San Diego State, but these games will be tight. D1-AA remains a relatively isolated division, and most of these teams have not seen much of anything outside their region. Everything will be a surprise, and the team with the most poise will survive.