The Empire Conference kicks off this weekend, and the team everyone is going to keep an eye on is Rutgers, who joins the DI-AA league after two seasons in DI-A. The Scarlet Knights lost a fair amount of talent to graduation, but have added a new coach and have their numbers back up to around 50 a practice.
“They did have a pretty big turnaround,” said new coach Omar Rivera, who is co-coaching with Mark Dobbs. “They lost quite a few key players. Fortunately, they’ve got a lot of good players that are coming back.”
Rutgers jumps into the league with back-to-back games on the opening weekend, traveling to Brockport on Saturday and Syracuse on Sunday.
“For the start of the season, they have a lot expected from them,” said Rivera. “New coach, that’s going to be an issue. Playing two games is going to be an issue. Beginning of the season is going to be an issue. If they get by this weekend, which I think they’ll do very well, I think we’re going downhill from there.”
Leading from the front for the Scarlet Knights is flanker Rich Jordan.
“He’s very key to keeping the team unified, very key. Not only on the field, but off the field,” said Rivera. “He’s in the ROTC program and you can see that on the rugby field. He’s organized, he’s where he needs to be, he does what he’s told to do. I’d like to have more ROTC guys.”
Actually opening the Empire season are Buffalo and St. Bonaventure, who kick off at 8:45 ET Friday at Buffalo. The Bonnies lost both of their captains from last year, All Empire players Nick Maurer and Nick Sylor, but return a lot otherwise.
“We lost both our captains, which are very significant losses, and then we lost a few other guys, part time A-side starters, so we have to replace a lot of leadership,” said St. Bonaventure coach Clarence Picard, “but our freshman and sophomore classes are probably two of our more talented groups, so as long as we can get good leadership out of the veterans, we can hopefully have a good season.”
The Empire West teams are all old rivals, so Buffalo and SBU know each other well.
“We know they have a real strong backline. Kevin McKenna at flyhalf is a guy that I coached when he was on the NY State High School All Stars, and he’s been around a bunch of select sides over the years,” said Picard.
“So he’s a real strong player at fly half, and they have a real good outside center, Tyler Norris, so we’re definitely going to have to watch out for them and keep our defense well organized and communicate. Plus, playing under the lights at UB, they’re going to have a lot of energy.”
Stony Brook won the inaugural Empire Conference championship, and if they’re going to repeat as champs, they’ll have to do so without the services of two departed playmakers -- scrumhalf Pete Molloy and inside center Sean Rafferty. They’ll also be without athletically gifted wing Eric Otoigiakhi this fall, who broke his ankle playing 7s in the summer.
But the cupboard isn’t bare in Long Island. Some young talented back rowers have allowed last year’s starting No. 8 and a starting flanker to move the midfield, so the Seawolves should once again be a really tough, physical team. And Michael St. Clair, the speedster on the wing, is back, too.
Last year’s starting fullback has moved to scrumhalf to cover for Molloy, and taking over at the back is a talented freshman from the Buffalo area, Bryan Michel.
“Real good player, and a freshman,” said Stony Brook coach Jerry Mirro of Michel, “but definitely not a freshman attitude and not a freshman mind when it comes to rugby.”
Stony Brook opens up Saturday against the Merchant Marine Academy.
“They’re obviously well conditioned, well groomed, fit. Long Island scrimmaged them last week,” said Mirro, who also coaches Long Island, “and they’ve improved tremendously, so I’m actually looking for them to give us a game this weekend. I’m not taking them lightly at all. Their scrumhalf, excellent player, and both their centers impressed me and their No. 8.”
Week One Matches
St. Bonaventure @ Buffalo FRIDAY
Rutgers @ Brockport SATURDAY
Army @ Fordham SUNDAY
Rutgers @ Syracuse SUNDAY
Binghamton @ Iona SUNDAY
USMMA @ Stony Brook SUNDAY