Saturday, the East Coast Conference joins the Mideast, Midwest and Empire Conferences as leagues whose seasons have kicked off.
Perhaps the opening-week game everyone’s keeping an eye on is UMass at Middlebury. The Panthers have been an elite DII program for years, and they’ve regularly played and beaten DI competition in friendlies. But, how can they handle the rigors of a full DI schedule?
“I think everybody knows it’s a challenge for us going up to DI now, and if we have injuries or whatever, nobody’s going to worry about Middlebury,” said head coach John Phillips. “They’re not going to stop the rest of the league. We have to play the games.”
Middlebury lost seven starters from their DII national finalist squad over the summer, but they return perhaps the most important of all last year’s Panthers – RUGBYMag DII All American scrumhalf Brian Sirkia. If Middlebury’s going to be successful this year, he’ll be at the center of the effort.
“You have to lean on Brian a lot. He’s the club captain, he’s an All American player to begin with, and they respect him immensely. Everybody listens when he talks, and if they don’t, they’re not smart,” said Phillips.
“Brian will be a huge part of the next season. The seniors that are there, they’re working, they’re teaching, they’re helping the other players. We’re all in this together, as you can understand. It’s a huge jump for us. With anybody going up to DI it’s a huge shock. Some teams come straight back down because they just can’t handle it.”
But, says Phillips, that’s not part of the Middlebury plan.
“As I said to the boys, we’re here for the long run. This is not one and done. We’re here for the long run. When we go to advertise, we’re a DI rugby school, and hopefully we attract some really good rugby players out there.”
Last time Middlebury played UMass, in the fall of ’09, they lost handily. The only player still at Middlebury who played in that game? Sirkia.
Also starting their season in the new conference Saturday are Boston College and UConn. BC defeated the Huskies last year, but Eagles head coach Jeff Monfett knows a challenge awaits his team Saturday.
“They always have a pretty solid forward pack. They’re pretty tight around the breakdown area, good in the counter-ruck game. Interesting to see they have another coaching change again this year, so it’ll be interesting to see how their new structure’s going to be.”
Boston College juniors often study abroad their spring season, so while the Eagles will be getting several players back that they didn’t have the latter half of the season, those players have some rust to shake off.
“We’re slowly getting them back in, working a few combinations. For the most part it’s coming along. We had a couple warmup games, so we’re looking forward to getting the league going.”
The third East Coast game is a massive one, as reining New England champ Northeastern hosts reining Met NY champion Southern Connecticut. Both were bounced in the opening round of the national playoffs in the spring.
“Southern is very excited about being in a newly created conference with such a high level of competition," said Southern captain Chris Rosa. "We moved up to Division 1 last year in hopes of winning a few games, but after we did so well in the season...we will except nothing less that to return to nationals again."
"The Maddogs expectations this season are high," said Northeastern captain Sebastien Voigt. "We understand the amount of pressure being defending champs of NERFU carries, but we also realize that we must approach this season the same way we do every season, with a hunger for victory in each match."