Bottom half looks to close gap: Rugby East preview

D1A Rugby: Bottom half looks to close gap: Rugby East preview
Photo Credit: Carol D'Allara (left) & Kent Miller (right)

BOULDER, Colo. – The 2015 season will see Rugby East expand for the third consecutive season. This year, West Virginia further strengthens one of the toughest conferences in the country.

Even with the recent additions, not much has changed towards the top. Army, Kutztown and Penn State remain the gold standard of the conference. However, Wheeling Jesuit, after reaching the 2015 D1A Playoffs, is striving to join the top tier of the East. Meanwhile, Buffalo, Iona and St. Bonaventure, each of which struggled at times in their inaugural seasons in D1A, will look to close the gap between themselves and the teams at the top of the conference.

Army
Not many conference champions deal with a change in regime at season’s end, but that’s exactly what West Point went through this summer. After going undefeated in Rugby East, including a surprise 34-30 come from behind win over Kutztown, longtime Army head coach Mike Mahan stepped down after his Brothers lost in the D1A Playoff’s second round.

Enter Matt Sherman. The former USA Eagle and Director of Rugby at Stanford, as well as the head coach of the Men’s Collegiate All-Americans, will now usher a new chapter of men’s rugby at West Point. Although still new to the Military Academy, Sherman already likes what he sees throughout his roster.

“The team is hungry to continue improving daily, and become the best team we can be on a daily basis,” the new head coach said.

After only returning two starters in 2014, Sherman will have the luxury of fielding a side that sees 11 cadets return to its starting lineup this fall. One key figure who is amongst the four graduates of West Point is Collum Magee. The ferocious flanker was not only productive on the pitch, but an inspirational leader last season on his way to being named Rugby East Forward of the Year.

Filling the void in leadership will be co-captains Jake Banarhall and Donny Goff. At scrumhalf, Banarhall is a seasoned field general, while Goff is a stout body in the front row who missed nearly all of last season due to injury. Two other cadets to keep an eye on are Andrew Fargo and David Huff. Fargo, a formidable athlete in the centers, and Huff, a sophomore speedster on the wing, combined for 25 tries during the 2014-15 campaign.

 

University at Buffalo
Wins and losses won’t necessarily determine Buffalo’s level of improvement this fall, but the Bulls are seeking to be more competitive throughout the gauntlet that is Rugby East. Too many times last season Buffalo found itself on the losing end of a lopsided match.

One player who will be key to Buffalo’s upward progress will be team president Colton Kells. The loose head prop commonly made larger front rowers look foolish in the set piece, and get around the park as well as any prop in the conference. Kells is especially appreciated of the addition of transfer student Sankara Daly. The big man from Trinidad and Tabago brings plenty of experience to coach Mike Hodgin’s youthful roster.

 

Iona College
Of the three 2014 additions to Rugby East, Iona fared the best. The team’s 2-4 record is not where second-year coach Bruce McLane wants to be, but pushing Army to a near upset showed the amount of promise the young Gaels possess.

“We were taught a lot of harsh lessons last year in Rugby East,” admitted McLane. “Hopefully we learned from them, and did the work from November to now to reverse some of those lessons.”

After playing a lot of freshmen last fall, many of whom were playing a position new to them, McLane’s roster is far more experienced – including 12 returning starters. Flanker John D’Allara will captain the side with assistance from senior hooker Andrew Rossi.

In terms of excitement, a trio of sophomores will be worth keeping an eye on after steady freshman seasons. Mike Marino moves to his more natural position in the loose forwards after filling a need in the centers last year. He’ll be an all around playmaker at the back of the scrum, while fly half Mike Marro and center Michael Scarcella will be key to the Gaels’ attack.

 

Kutztown University
Aside from its second half performance against Army, no team played better rugby than Kutztown last fall. During its 5-1 season, the Golden Bear accumulated a plus-211 point differential – a number twice as large at eventual champion Army’s was in the 2014.

This season, Kutztown returns a wealth of talent, but will also have to replace one of college rugby’s best from a season ago. AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American Niku Kruger has been training with the Eagles since finishing his time at Kutztown in the spring. After gaining his first cap international cap in the recent 41-23 victory over Canada, Kruger earned valuable second half minutes against the Harlequins of the Aviva Premiership. Now, the scrumhalf will be heading to England as Mike Petri’s backup during the Rugby World Cup.

Losing Kruger won’t help the Golden Bears cause, but they still have other All-Americans to count on. Wes Hartmann is a powerful No. 8 who showed really well for Men’s Collegiate All-American side at Rugbytown Sevens. In the backs, Robert Stortz seemingly lives in the try zone with the amount of times he crosses the line, and Alex Faison-Donohoe presents matchup nightmares on the wing with his rare combination of size and speed.

The most important newcomer for Kutztown will have the biggest boots to fill. Scrumhalf David Sneed joins the Golden Bear family after spending a season with Arkansas State, and played for the Glendale Raptors a year before that. Even as immensely important as Kruger has been for Kutztown in seasons past, Sneed will provide a steady hand in the number nine jumper, and has a host of talent surrounding him.

 

Penn State University
After a suspension-shortened season in 2013-14, Penn State had a successful return to the pitch last year. The Nittany Lions fall season earned them a 4-2 record in the conference, and a spot in the D1A Playoffs. After taking care of Wisconsin in the first round, Penn State was bounced by Life in the Quarterfinals.

Newly appointed head coach, Blake Burdette, should bring discipline and structure to the side, but he’ll first have to piece together a starting XV that lost a half dozen starters to graduation. Most notably is All-American lock Dan Metcalf. The imposing second rower had been a beast in the trenches for Penn State for several years.

Burdette will have a number of standout returners to lean on for outstanding play. In the forwards, Malcolm May is back at flanker after missing the Nittany Lions playoff run due to an Achilles injury. May is not only one of the better loose forwards in Rugby East, but in the entire country. After an impressive freshman season, Jimmy Ronan will once again be the link between the forwards and backs at scrumhalf. Ronan should become a more familiar name to college rugby fans by season’s end.

Director of Rugby Chris Amoratis is not only thrilled about the prospect of his unit this fall, but also excited over the state of Rugby East.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming West Virginia into the conference, and eager to see their progress as a program,” Amoratis said. “As always, Army and Kutztown are the class of the conference. We always look forward to measuring ourselves against those two great programs.”

 

 St. Bonaventure University
Similar to the other additions to Rugby East, St. Bonaventure was at times overwhelmed by the top dogs of the conference last year. However, Head Coach Clarence Picard believes the team is better off given their struggles, and will be prepared this fall.

“Last year we learned a lot of hard lessons, and subsequently have a better understanding of what to expect,” explained Picard. “That being said, we are no longer naïve to the realities of competing at the D1A level.”

Nine starters return to the Bonnie’s lineup, but Picard is equally excited about the 20 new student-athletes joining the team. Last fall, St. Bonaventure’s depth was deeply tested, but this year’s unit should be able to counter the physical demands of the conference.

Of the nine returners, none will be more important than captain and No. 8 Luis Carpio. Already an All-Conference performer, Carpio returns to New York after spending a portion of his summer training at the Sharks Academy in Durban, South Africa. Team MVP and flyhalf Jordan Farrant will lead the backs. In attack, Farrant will be tasked with making sure Pat Hogan and Dan Dillon get plenty of touches.

 

West Virginia University
After claiming another championship in the Keystone Conference, West Virginia sought an uptick in competition, and the Mountaineers got their wish by being welcomed to Rugby East. The transition to D1A will undoubtedly be a challenge, and losing nine starters from a team that reached the D1AA Semifinals in the spring will make the move even more difficult.

“I believe our debut season in one of the most competitive conferences in the country is a significant step for the development of our program,” said Head Coach Richard Glover. “

Even with the considerable losses due to graduation, West Virginia’s cupboard is far from empty. Juniors CJ Burnes and Austin Hoover form a formidable pairing in the centers, meanwhile, club president and utility back Luke Ellis gives Glover another reliable option in the backline. Up front, the Mountaineers have a sizeable front row that won’t easily be pushed around by the sturdiest of forward packs in Rugby East. Behind them, the recovery from injury by both Toby Russell at lock and eight man Dipot Sadipe will be significant to the team’s success. Sadipe, especially, is one to keep an eye on. The relatively raw talent has shown flashes of All-American play in the loose.

Wheeling Jesuit University
Like Army and Penn State, Wheeling Jesuit enters the 2015 season with a new head coach. Tal Bayer, who aided the rise of the Wheeling Jesuit program as an assistant, has been promoted to head coach. Bayer’s regime looks to have picked up where Eric Jerpe’s left off. After posting impressive results in the spring, the Cardinals opened the fall with a convincing 51-17 hammering of Cincinnati.

Bayer and Jerpe most definitely deserve credit for Wheeling Jesuit reaching the D1A Playoffs in just its third year of existence, but senior forward Peter Malcolm has been in the middle of it all, as well. An All-American loose forward who recently received a call to train at the Olympic Training Center with the Men’s Eagles Sevens, Malcolm plays with a fierce, competitive spirit that raises the standard of play around him.

Following a year and a half away from the West Virginia campus crafting his scrummaging technique abroad, Max Lum returns to Wheeling Jesuit to anchor the front row. He’ll likely share propping duties with Cecil Rich. The powerful sophomore is coming off a stellar freshman campaign, and has enough athleticism to allow Bayer the option of moving him around the forward pack if he chooses.

Inosi Kau seemed to settle into is role as a straight line-running center during the spring. His ability to soften a defensive line will allow the Cardinals to spread the ball wide as they did time and time again last year.

 

Preseason Back of the Year: Robert Stortz – Kutztown
Not the largest or flashiest of playmakers, Stortz simply gets the job done – really well. Last season, teams couldn’t keep the center/wing from the try zone. After an impressive run of sevens tournaments this summer, including individual shades of greatness shown at the USA Rugby Club 7s National Championships, Serevi Rugbytown Sevens and Elite City Sevens, Stortz is sure to be in top for during his final season at Kutztown.

Honorable mention:
Jake Banarhall – Army
Don’t let his slight stature fool you, Banarhall is as tough as they come. As much as the senior’s leadership and ball distributing will be counted on, the nifty scrumhalf can get behind a defense using his feet, as well.

Preseason Forward of the Year:Peter Malcolm – Wheeling Jesuit
Malcolm has been on the national radar since appearing for the Junior All-Americans at the 2014 Junior World Trophy. After helping team USA place third in the tournament, Malcolm has helped Wheeling Jesuit become relevant in the college rugby world. Known for his aggression at the tackle point, the senior from Florida is equally skilled as he is ferocious.

Honroable Mention: Wes Hartmann – Kutztown
On a roster loaded with talent, Hartmann may not receive quite the recognition he deserves. The two-time All-American and No. 8 doesn’t shy away from contact, and adds a southern hemisphere flair to his game that was obviously entrenched in him growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Predicted Finish
  1) Kutztown
  2) Army
  3) Penn State
  4) Wheeling Jesuit
  5) Iona
  6) St. Bonaventure
  7) West Virginia
  8) Buffalo