Photos Tay Hawker (homepage) & Karen Drinkwater (homepage & right)
BOULDER, Colo. – Saint Mary’s has been putting up monster numbers and beating teams by wide margins all season. That trend has continued into the playoffs, as the Gaels demolished fellow California Conference member Santa Clara 103-10 in last Saturday’s second round matchup.
Lindenwood is hoping to buck that trend when it rolls into Moraga, Calif., for its May 3 Semifinal match against Saint Mary’s.
The Lions are coming off of an impressive playoff victory of their own – a 64-32 handling of Davenport in last week’s D1A Quarterfinals. The 64 points was by far the highest scoring total Lindenwood has posted all season, and the team seems to be improving week to week.
“It’s really starting to click for us at the business end of the season,” explained Lindenwood’s first-year head coach JD Stephenson. “The guys are starting to go out there and really believe in what we’re trying to do, and move the ball real well.”
On-field chemistry has sped up the Lions’ attack, but the return of dynamic backline player Morgan Findlay has given Lindenwood a boost, as well.
“He’s one of the founding members of Lindenwood Rugby,” Stephenson said. “It goes without saying that he’s just a class-player. He brings confidence and raises the level of play amongst the team.”
Of course, no team reaches the D1A Semifinals with one standout player, and Lindenwood has plenty of them – something Saint Mary’s has taken notice of when watching film on the Lions.
“Lindenwood is a very talented, well-organized group of players with lots of rugby background,” said Saint Mary’s forwards coach John Everett. “You can see they know their way to the weight room – they’re all big, strong and fast. The forwards are always on their front foot going forward, and their backs have superior speed and good ball-handling skills. If you make a mistake against them you’re going to pay for it. They’ve managed to get in the middle of a dogfight between Life University and Arkansas State, and with the Mid-South being the best division of D1A, they must be pretty darn good.”
Even more worrisome for Saint Mary’s than Lindenwood’s deep and talented roster, is possibly the one chink in the Gaels’ armor – not playing up to its potential in the opening minutes of matches. In Saint Mary’s last three games, all blowout wins, the Gaels have surprisingly allowed the opposing team to light the scoreboard first.
“You never want to start slow,” Everett says.” One thing we’ve talked about this week is coming out of the gates fast. You never want to play from behind.”
Saint Mary’s goes into the match the favorite. The No. 1-ranked team has the luxury of playing at home, and has been in this position before after reaching the D1A National Championship game last season, while Lindenwood was playing DI-AA last season.
Still, playoff experience is valuable no matter what level of rugby the experience comes from, and Lindenwood is no stranger to win-or-go-home pressure, having won a Division II National Championship in 2012 and reaching the DI-AA title game last year.
“I think our boys will play with confidence because they have played in playoff situations before,” says Stephenson. “But I think they’ll go out there, regardless of this being a playoff match, and play hard for 80 minutes purely out of respect of our opposition, because Saint Mary’s has been such a powerhouse.”
As far as slowing down a Saint Mary’s offense that has averaged 92 points a game in D1A matches this season, Stephenson does not think his team will do much differently this week on defense.
“We don’t necessarily have a defensive scheme or anything we’re trying to run to deter the way they like to play,” Stephenson says. “We haven’t seen much of them on film, so it will take the first 10 minutes of the match to get a feel for their style, and hopefully we can weather the storm early.”
One offensive threat that Lindenwood may not have to worry about Saturday is Dylan Audsley. The second-year center has not suited up for Saint Mary’s in the Gaels’ last two matches. Luckily for Saint Mary’s, its backline talent is deep, and AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American Garrett Brewer has been more than capable in taking over the kicking duties in Audsley’s absence.
Player to watch:
Ben O’Donnell, Lindenwood – Saint Mary’s potent offense starts with flyhalf Garrett Brewer. The Gaels have too many weapons to keep them from eventually finding the try zone a time or two, but if O’Donnell, who sports the number 10 for the Lions, can apply consistent pressure on Brewer, then other playmakers like Kingsley McGowan should see the ball less frequently.
Ryan Pratt, Saint Mary’s – The Gaels’ forwards, especially the tight five, do not get the credit they deserve. With such an explosive and exciting attack in the loose, Saint Mary’s big men often get lost in the shuffle. Along with Pratt, Michael O’Neill and Dino Waldren have played terrific rugby all season long in the front three. Pratt even got back involved in Saint Mary’s second round scoring barrage, putting down two tries of his own against Santa Clara last week.
#1 Saint Mary’s vs. #4 Lindendwood – Moraga, Ca. 1:00 p.m. (PST)