Coming off monster win, Lindenwood now deals with Air Force

D1A Rugby: Coming off monster win, Lindenwood now deals with Air Force
Photo Credit: Tay Hawker (left) & Rich Bristol (right)

BOULDER, Colo. – Four weeks after traveling to Colorado to play senior club side Glendale Raptors, Lindenwood returns to the Centennial State for a Quarterfinal matchup with Air Force.

The Lions find themselves on the base of the United State Air Force Academy after an opening round Playoff game saw Lindenwood pick apart Colorado State, 69-12. The onslaught of running rugby that produced a 57-point win in a Playoff match was a reminder of just how dangerous the Lions can be. Meanwhile, the team’s coaching staff is taking a modest stance to its most recent victory.

“I think it was a combination of good rugby, and to be honest, Colorado State didn’t really fire,” said Lindenwood Director of Rugby JD Stephenson. “They are a much better team than they showed Saturday, and the score wasn’t reflective of the type of team they are.”

The one-sided affair in St. Charles, Mo., last weekend might be seen as worrisome for an Air Force team that easily beat the Rams in September, but were on the wrong end of a 34-5 outcome in the March 7 rematch. However, the Zoomies’ roster is made up of student-athletes that have enough duties on their plates – worrying about a score of a rugby match they were not involved in is not one of them.

“We try not to let that stuff bother us too much,” said longtime Air Force Head Coach Joe Muehlbauer. “Obviously, we have it in the back of our minds and we know we have a really tough job ahead of us, but we’ve done our due diligence and we feel we’re right where we should be.”

Where Air Force doesn’t want to be is behind on the scoreboard early to Lindenwood. The Lions’ Achilles heel during Mid-South play seemed to be a habit of getting off to slow starts. In contrast, Lindenwood jumped all over Colorado State early, and the fast start spurred a relentless performance on both offense and defense.

“I definitely think when you set a small target to be effective in the first 20 minutes and have a good game plan behind it, that it makes it easier for the next 60 minutes of the match,” Stephenson said.

A quick start could have played a part in the dominant Round 1 fixture, but it could be the Lions are just now getting enough game time to build the cohesion necessary to play up to their potential. Not including wins over New Orleans Rugby Club and Louisiana State, games in which Lindenwood’s roster didn’t include its sevens players, the Lions’ victory over the Rams was just the sixth 15s match the team has played in 2015.

Like its Quarterfinal foe, Air Force has had an inconsistent spring semester when it comes to playing 15s matches. The team has been forced to switch back and forth between sevens and 15s and have also faced multiple cancelations due to snowstorms.

“I think we’re all on the same page now, but it is tough going from sevens to 15s and back to sevens,” admitted Muehlbauer. “But I think we’ve done a pretty good job with it all, and we’ve obviously been concentrating on 15s the past few weeks. So, I think we’re ready to go.”

The Zoomies might be ready both mentally and physically, but they’ll have to deal with the challenges Lindenwood presents without three starters from its starting forward pack. The string of injuries have left the team a little lighter, but Muehlbauer and his staff are pleased with the reserves who have filled in and the team’s overall resolve.

Regardless, the game of musical chairs being played amongst Air Force’s forwards has done little to sway Lindenwood’s perception of the Zoomies’ pack.

“We’re expecting a really tough battle up front,” said Stephenson. “They are going to bash us and our guys are looking forward to it. We’ll be asking a lot out of our scrum and lineout.”

This is playoff rugby, so Lindenwood has been dealing with its share of injuries as well – most notably the loss of star center James Poly. The AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American is done for the season after tearing his ACL. Fortunately for the Lions, they get an All-American back this week for the Quarterfinals. After sitting out the match against Colorado State, captain and Colorado Springs native Mikey Gierlach will be back in Lindenwood’s second row to play in front of friends and family.

Gierlach’s return could be a difference maker, and his leadership will help organize a defense that has caught the attention of Air Force.

“They are big, strong, and fast – which is a lethal combination,” admired Muehlbauer. “But what has really impressed me most about them is their defensive alignment. After a breakdown they reset their defense really quickly, and that’s going to be tough to crack.”

The round of eight matchup pitting Lindenwood against Air Force will kick off at 1 p.m. MT. The winner of the April 25 Quarterfinal will compete against the victor of tomorrow’s game between Life and Penn State in the D1A Semifinals.