Conference Preview: Mighty Mid-South gets tougher with addition of Arkansas State, Clemson

D1A Rugby: Conference Preview: Mighty Mid-South gets tougher with addition of Arkansas State, Clemson
Photo Credit: (From R to L) Ron Raff Photography, Karen Drinkwater & Steve Zomberg

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The Mid-South has long been regarded as one of the toughest conferences in college rugby. The only thing holding it back from being the unquestioned top conference in the country is its relative lack of teams.

Since Arkansas State’s departure following the 2014 season, the Mid-South has been a three-team competition between Davenport, Life and Lindenwood. The conference has beefed up for 2017, however. Arkansas State has returned and Clemson has entered the fold – but both are considered affiliate members. This loose affiliation with the Mid-South means that Arkansas State and Clemson will play each member of the conference once during the Mid-South season, while Davenport, Life and Lindenwood play one another twice in contests that will count towards the conference standings.

“Bringing in Arkansas State and Clemson as affiliates was a no-brainer in terms of building our competition in the Mid-South Conference,” said Life assistant coach and Mid-South Commissioner Colton Cariaga. “In addition to the geographical fit, Arkansas State and Clemson are cornerstone institutions in the region with rugby programs that have had significant histories and considerable success on the field. From that end, it would make sense to have them on as full members in the near future.”

Four of the five members of the Mid-South currently reside in the D1A Top 20, making it the most challenging conference to navigate and one that college rugby fans will want to keep an eye on.

 
Arkansas State Red Wolves
Arkansas State returns to the Mid-South as an affiliate member this season, and the Red Wolves make their return just as talented as the team that bowed out of the D1A Playoffs in the 2014 Semifinals.

One key difference in the program is the role of Shaun Potgieter. After a decorated playing career at Arkansas State as a loose forward, Potgieter spent one season as an assistant before taking over as the head coach in Jonesboro, Ark.

The coaching staff at Arkansas State is thrilled to have Potgieter’s one-time teammate, Kuda Makuvire, on the roster. The Zimbabwe-born hooker is now a senior and not only one of the most skilled Red Wolves, but a valuable leader, as well.

Homegrown talent also resides in Arkansas State’s forwards. Blace Walser, who is a former Division I wrestler, is not your prototypical college open side flanker. Tough, strong and in possession of an endless motor, Walser is sure to eat up a lot of tackles during the Mid-South season.

In the backs, Val Balande and Preston Weigel are upperclassmen capable of making defenders miss. Anther player opposing defenses will want to mark is Sione Fangaiuiha. The Lindenwood transfer from Australia can play wing or center, and has a dangerous combination of size and speed.

It’s nearly impossible to prepare for the precision and toughness of Life University, but the Red Wolves did notch a tough road win recently ahead of their Feb. 18 conference opener against the Running Eagles. Last weekend, Arkansas State traveled to Baton Rouge, La., where it used a second half comeback to beat No. 17 LSU, 27-17.

 
Davenport University Panthers
Davenport has finished third in the Mid-South the previous two seasons, but one wonders how many other D1A Rugby conferences the Panthers could place first in. Their roster is chock full of superb Midwest talent, but a couple of factors have hindered their ability to move up in the Mid-South standings.

Arkansas State, Life and Lindenwood do a tremendous job of recruiting American-born talent onto their campuses. Still, the three top-end programs fill in gaps amongst the roster with foreign-born players. Davenport, on the other hand, fields an entire roster of players who hail from the United States.

The less-than-ideal training weather in Michigan doesn’t help the Panthers sprint out of the gates, either. Of the five teams in the Mid-South, no team is kept indoors due to weather more often than Davenport. The Panthers’ first game of the 2017 season is in less than two weeks and the team has yet to hold practice on grass since the New Year.

Fortunately for new head coach Harry King II, he has come into a senior-laden squad capable of overcoming some of the program’s fallbacks.

Davenport’s trio of loose forwards compares well with any in the conference. Led by All-American eight man Dominique Bailey, the position group also includes returning starters in junior flankers Thomas Cheslek and Trevor Rothhaas.

The front row will be skilled and experienced, too. Returning upperclassmen Drew Boatright and William Dattulo remain intact at prop, while senior Conor Schilling is back in the No. 2 jumper.

The back line is heavy with seniors, as well. Brady Gent and Noah Zomberg have plenty of familiarity together in the halfbacks. Those two will attempt to get seasoned campaigners Reece Czarnecki and Michael Houston as many touches as possible.

In terms of strategy, the skill is there for the Panthers to play a touch line-to-touch line style, but they’ll challenge teams with a more direct style, too.

“We’re focused on an open style, but we realize with the personnel that we have we have to play very classical union rugby. You can’t just go into a D1A game thinking you’re going to run over teams like Life, Lindenwood or Arkansas State. You have to play smart rugby. If you don’t play smart rugby, you’re in trouble.”

Given the amount of experience on the team, as well as its 5-1 record from the fall, Davenport will enter the Mid-South season with plenty of confidence. Of its five wins from September to November, none was as big a boost as its 15-12 victory over Arkansas State.

 

Clemson University Tigers
Clemson needed a new competition to play in after D1AA’s Atlantic Coast Rugby League broke apart. Already a dominant force at that level and doing tremendous work away from the pitch and in the community,, the move to D1A seemed right for the Tigers.

The move to D1A Rugby as a Mid-South affiliate will have to be done without the team’s starters at the No. 9 and 10 positions from a season ago – spots in the first XV that are never easy to replace. Last year’s scum half and captain Ryan Gilroy has departed the program. So, too, has fly half Dan Collins. Speed on the edge will also need to be replaced with the graduation of wings Chris Abraham and Nick Johnson.

There might be a few question marks remaining in the Clemson lineup, but not in the centers. Dylan Goulding and Colin Gregory form a strong center pairing, and James Rogers looks to have locked down one of the wing positions, while Nick Richards should step in nicely at fly half.

In the forwards, Jason Damm is very valuable at the back of the scrum, and lock Stuart Harr, as well as loose head prop Josh Dyson, will be called on for big individual performances.

In terms of a style, Clemson is all about pressure – on attack and defense.

“Our style of play is developing into a dynamic and high pressure attack which allows for playmakers to create space and make read decisions,” explained head coach Steve Lynch. “Defensively, we are growing into a physical, high pressure, high tempo team. The players are starting to take ownership for the team culture, and I’m excited about the growth and support for each other.”

Clemson’s affiliation with the Mid-South have the Tigers set for their toughest slate of matches in recent years, but a growing continuity in the program should ease some of the challenges. Lynch, who is in just his second season at the helm at Clemson, now has a full grasp of his roster, and the program has a new pitch to call home after having its previous field stripped from below its boots.

“Our players have been resilient over the past 18 months off the pitch,” complimented Lynch. “I’m confident that resilience will show dividends on the pitch this year. That said, its going to be an exciting and challenging year on the pitch in D1A Rugby’s Mid-South – the most competitive conference in collegiate rugby.”

 

Life University Running Eagles
The 2015-16 season was a special one for Life. The Running Eagles didn’t drop a game on their way to the D1A Rugby National Championship. Even more impressive is that Life returns nearly the entire squad that hoisted the National Championship trophy at Saint Mary’s College last May.

The few key players that did graduate from the team will be missed for their varied skill sets. Zach Warren, who played hooker during his final season in Marietta, Ga., typified the hard-nosed rugby Life has become known for. Scum half Marcus Walsh is now running with Life’s senior club side, and his leadership around the breakdown will be missed, while prop Jamie Ferrante was crucial at scrum time last season.

Newly-capped Eagle prop Alex Maughan highlights the list of returning Running Eagles in the forward pack. Opposite of Maughan along the front row is fellow 2016 Mid-South All-Conference prop Estevan Flores. Behind the two experienced front row forwards is flanker Sebastian Banos, who enters his third season as a starter. The rest of the pack doesn’t have a ton of name recognition, but that should change by season’s end. Juniors Mike Islava and Maciu Koroi are talented, physical and versatile, as both can make impacts from either the second or third rows.

Speaking of versatility, All-American Harley Davidson remains in the green and white strip of the Running Eagles. Originally pegged as a winger, Davidson has started one National Championship title game as a center and one as a flanker. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the MVP of the 2016 D1A Final sees time at all three of the above positions this season.

Life has a devastating center pairing. Last year’s Mid-South Back of the Year, Cody Melphy, retakes the No. 12 jersey, and All-Conference back Zander Van Schalkwyk will, again, be by his side at outside center. The back three has proven ball handlers Sam Cowley and Mitchell Wilson roaming the back line, as well as Harley Wheeler. A former football player, Wheeler packs a mighty punch from his 5-foot-11 frame, and should be due for a massive season.

“Though several student-athletes have returned from last year’s squad, it is not entirely the same group,” explained assistant coach and former Life All-American Colton Cariaga. “The slate is clean and we will have to earn our keep.”

The majority of match minutes during the fall are devoted to developing underclassmen. Still, Life did earn a solid, 34-10, win over Arkansas State in a friendly back in November. Regardless of what the program’s preparation for the Mid-South season looks like each year, the Running Eagles are always in good form come conference competition. This year their Mid-South season starts Feb. 18 at home against Arkansas State for the Huckaby Cup.

“We are really throwing a lot at this group to challenge their decision-making and ability to perform core skills under pressure,” Cariaga added. “Our ability to learn and develop in those areas while remaining true to ourselves is ultimately what it comes down to.”


Lindenwood University Lions
Lindenwood has been through some changes since ending its season in the D1A Semifinals for the third consecutive season. Josh Macy, after several successful seasons leading American International College’s rugby program, takes over as lead man of the Lions.

“We have a big, diverse roster, and getting to know everyone has been fun and challenging,” said Macy. “I’m still getting to know some of the guy as players and people. We have a great staff that has really shown me the ropes and helped me adjust to the Midwest.”

It probably didn’t take Macy long to realize he has several playmakers at his disposal at Lindenwood. Mickey Bateman, Nick Feakes and Michael Baska can beat the best defenses with both their hands and feet. Those three are tough to game plan for, while fellow backs Deion Mikesell, Cristian Rodriguez and Lorenzo Thomas are flat-out hard to stop. Mikesell recently earned his second cap with the Eagles in the Americas Rugby Championship, while Thomas has recovered from a leg injury after a breakout freshman season that saw him play with the Eagles alongside Mikesell. Rodriguez doesn’t catch the opposition’s attention coming off the bus the way Mikesell and Thomas do, but he’ll be sure to have the Mid-South’s full attention in no time. During last week’s trip to Colorado that produced two dominating wins over Air Force and the University of Colorado, the sophomore wing led the team with five tries.

The long list of talent in Lindenwood’s back line should be more than enough to replace the leadership and productivity of now-departed center Maani Kapa, while forwards Michael Gierlach and Jon Holden will be a bit harder to compensate for. Gierlach had been a linchpin for the Lions’ forward pack the past several years, and Holden was the best hooker in the conference a season ago. Lock Jack Huckstepp is growing in his role as a leader and should fill the void left by Gierlach in the engine room. Chance Wenglewski won’t be leaving his position at prop to backfill Holden’s role at hooker, but he is one of the best props in college rugby and should anchor Lindenwood’s scrum nicely. There’s also eight man West Parker, who was named the conference’s Forward of the Year in 2016. Expect to hear his name a time or two before the D1A Playoffs begin April 15.

The Lions are gifted with loads of talent along their first XV and reserves, but it’s still hard to find advantages in the extremely challenging Mid-South Conference. Macy, however, believes his team’s size might be that advantage.

“We’ll be a hard-nosed team that likes to shorten the game and kill clock with punishing carries and keeping the ball close to the forwards,” said the first year Lions coach. “We’ll use our size to overwhelm our opponents.”


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