Davenport, Saint Mary’s vie for place in National Championship

D1A Rugby: Davenport, Saint Mary’s vie for place in National Championship
Photo Credit: Karen Drinkwater (left) & Steve Zomberg (right)

BOULDER, Colo. – Saint Mary’s College finds itself in a familiar position after its 72-26 Quarterfinal win over Utah – preparing to face a Mid-South team deep into the D1A Playoffs. The Gaels have faced Life in the past two National Championship Finals, and smashed Lindenwood, 72-7, in last year’s Semifinal.

This year, Saint Mary’s will face a new test out of the Mid-South in Davenport. The Panthers have reached their first D1A Semifinal after Playoff wins against Wheeling Jesuit and Army.

“They’re a good rugby program that’s won championships,” said Saint Mary’s prop Dino Waldren. “We’ll have to bring our best and match the physicality of a hard-hitting team like Davenport. They are just as hungry as we are to make a statement.”

The Panthers’ current three-game winning streak, which began with an April 11 win against Lindenwood, has drawn the attention of the Gaels, but has been slightly overshadowed by the Lions’ run in the Playoffs, which has produced a plus-104 point differential in two games. Still, Davenport’s road to the Semifinals has been impressive, as well. Wins eliminating the Cardinals and Black Knights from the postseason came by an average of 28 points.

“This team has chemistry and it’s clicking at the right moment,” Davenport hooker Gabe Sochanek said. “We had a few issues in the fall and early spring, but we’ve worked through that and this is as competitive a group as I’ve been around.”

The Panthers are not only competitive but also well traveled. A week after making the trip to West Point, Davenport has already arrived in the Golden State to settle in prior to Saturday’s match. Traveling for competition, especially in college rugby when teams have less experience needing to take a flight to make a game, is a tough ask. But the Panthers don’t see their back-to-back road games playing a factor in the Semifinals.

“I don’t think it will be an issue,” Sochanek claimed. “It does take a toll, but Coach [James] Wood does a good job of making sure we get proper down time, as well as a team run when we’re on the road.”

One member of D1A’s third-ranked team that wasn’t on the team’s flight to California was AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American Angus MacLellan. The tight head prop is currently on tour in South America with the USA Rugby Selects. The loss of such an influential player could devastate some sides, but MacLellan was missing from Davenport’s pack in the first two Playoff games and the scrum continued to perform quite well.

“It’s noticeable that he’s not there, but Brandon Bokhart has really stepped up and has made sure we don’t skip a beat,” Sochaneck said of his teammate, who is typically used as a reserve, but has been thrust into the starting lineup in MacLellan’s absence.

While the Panthers wish they could have their captain with them for the Playoffs, Saint Mary’s trio of All-Americans in the front row are also disappointed MacLellan won’t be on the pitch in Moraga, Calif., Saturday. Waldren, who, like MacLellan, is a tight head, wouldn’t have propped against his one-time All-American teammate, but believes a matchup between MacLellan and Gaels loose head Ryan Pratt would have made for entertaining rugby.

“I think it would have been a great competition between Angus and Ryan, and it would have been exciting to watch,” said Waldren. “It’s a little unfortunate we won’t get to test ourselves against him, but I wish him all of the best as he tours with USA and I’m happy for him.”

Even though both teams possess a lot of talent in the pack, the back lines for each side deserve plenty of credit for reaching the Semifinals. Saint Mary’s lethal attack has become even more dangerous now that Kingsley McGowan’s hands touch the ball more often in the No. 10 jersey. He will, of course, have plenty of options outside of him when leading the Gaels’ touchline-to-touchline attack. Dylan Audsley and wings Mason Colombo and Charlie Louden are likely to see plenty of touches after the trio combined for seven tries last week against Utah.

On the other side of the pitch, fly half JP Eloff will operate Davenport’s backs. Owner of an accurate boot, Eloff can light up the scoreboard from the kicking tee. However, Saint Mary’s is likely to score its share of points, so it’s imperative Eloff creates space for Reece Czarnecki, Mike Houston, and Anthony Welmers to bust through on attack.

In an attempt to avoid the one-sided hammering Lindenwood received when it played in Moraga for a Semifinal, Davenport will do its best to keep Saint Mary’s back line from running wild.

“We know they like to play a very fast game, so we’re going to try to slow it down a little bit,” explained Sochanek.

For a team with a championship pedigree like the Gaels, they know the quality of rugby that is expected of them if they want to advance to their third consecutive D1A National Championship.

“You have to play your best rugby in April and May, and I think we’re staring to hit our stride,” suggested Waldren. “We’re all on board with what the coaches are telling us, and it shows in practice.”

The Semifinal pitting Davenport against Saint Mary’s is scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m. PT, and will be available to watch online on at SMCGaels.com. The winning squad will face Life or Lindenwood, who play in the other Semifinal, May 9 at the 2015 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University.