The Atlantic Coast Rugby League embarks on its second season Saturday, when North Carolina hosts Wake Forest, Georgia Tech travels to Clemson and NC State welcomes Virginia Tech.
Unlike last season, there is no ACRL championship game in 2012. The league champion will be determined by the league table, making every week crucial.
“With the limited amount of games, if you lose one, you’re probably done,” said Maryland coach Jeff Soeken (In 2011, Maryland lost to North Carolina in the regular season, but avenged that loss in the ACRL title game to claim the conference’s bid to the Sweet 16.)
“There’s only eight teams in the league now, so there’s no way to make that up, like we were fortunate enough to do that last year.”
Maryland was picked in the preseason coaches poll to repeat as conference champs in 2012. The Terps have lost some starters in the pack, most notably No. 8 Richard Hwang, and a four-man platoon of props.
“There wasn’t any one person that was irreplaceable, but we had a few that worked in a rotation,” said Soeken. “Ends up, I’ve got probably four hookers that are all capable, but some of them are going to have to play prop.”
Outside of the front row and No. 8, Maryland returns virtually everyone, including senior fullback Trevor Tanifum and ACRL co-player of the year Matias Cima. The Terps enjoyed an influx of experienced, talented freshman in 2010, and they’re now sophomores. Cima, the headliner of that class, is one of the best flyhalves in the country, regardless of division.
2. Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina
6. NC State
7. Wake Forest
8. Georgia Tech
UNC, conversely, has experienced a lot of turnover since reaching the ACRL title game with a senior-laden bunch in 2011. Alex Lee, the other ACRL co-player of the year, is one of nine graduated Tar Heels coach Pete Earsman has to replace.
“With the lack of depth we currently have, and the loss of so many vital members of the club, winning the ACRL will be a very difficult if not an impossible task,” said Earsman. “To remain competitive in all the conference games we play is our No. 1 goal. Gaining experience and maintaining the players we have now for the future is right up there, as well.”
Despite the turnover, the Tar Heels were picked to finish third by the coaches.
Also figuring to be competitive for a title this season are Virginia Tech, Clemson and Virginia, who finished fifth, fourth and third, respectively, last season, but were picked to finish second, fourth and fifth, respectively, in 2012.
The Hokies downed UNC-Wilmington and VMI (both have been ranked in DII) and Clemson, among others, in the preseason. The only Virginia Tech loss came against fourth-ranked Tennessee.
Clemson is undefeated in spring play with wins over Kennesaw State of the South Independent Rugby Conference and 10th-ranked Bowling Green.The Tigers' defeat of Bowling Green came after the coaches poll was taken.
Hoping to make a climb in the ACRL hierarchy is Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons finished seventh in 2011.
“I think we will be a much improved team from what we were last year. The only problem is I think everyone else in the league is much improved as well,” said Wake Forest coach Pat Kane.
“Top to bottom, the league as a whole, from what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard, every team has gotten better. I’m excited about what our guys can do. I think we can play with anyone in the league and compete with anyone in the league on any given day.”
All ACRL fullback in 2011, Johnny McMurray has moved to flyhalf for this spring. He, along with prop Matt Storck, who returns after taking 2011 off, need to play well for Wake to finish in the upper half of the league.
“I think he is going to be a tremendous asset,” said Kane of McMurray. “He’s really taken a hold of our offense and is running the show really well with the No. 10 jersey.”
“He is just an absolute monster in the scrum, in the loose and in the open field,” said Kane of Storck. “Having him has really solidified our forwards.”