BOULDER, Colo. – At least one Mid-South team will reach the May 9 D1A National Championship Final, as two sides from the small but immensely competitive conference, Life and Lindenwood, do battle May 2 in the Semifinals. In order to reach their third consecutive D1A Final, the Running Eagles will have to beat the Lions for a third time this season.
After failing to score more than 28 points in any of its four Mid-South matches, Life’s attack exploded for 64 points in its Quarterfinal win over Penn State. The onslaught of offense was welcomed, but didn’t come as a surprise to a Running Eagles team that has been more commonly known for its impenetrable defense.
“We definitely have a lot of weapons in the backs, as well as our forwards,” claimed prop Xander Daniels. “I think we’re a pretty sound team right now.”
The team might be sound, but it is also young. Against the Nittany Lions, Head Coach Tui Osborne ran out seven freshmen in the first XV – four of which played in the forward pack. Daniels, a junior from Missoula, Mont., is the only non-freshman in the front row, and has noticed a sizeable improvement in his first-year teammates.
“From the beginning of the fall to now they’ve improved tremendously,” said the forward who has played nearly every position in the pack during his time at Life. “Steve Florez has improved quite a bit, and it’s definitely noticeable. He’s stronger in the scrums and runs the ball hard as hell.”
Daniels credits the overall enhancement of the forwards with not only the time they spend on the training field, but cites the amount of time Life’s larger units spend together away from the pitch as a source of increased cohesion.
Lindenwood isn’t shocked that a number of freshmen are playing valuable minutes for its Conference foe – and doing so at a high level.
“They get the right kids to fit their program, and they train them up and coach them,” said Lions Head Coach JD Stephenson.
Not only does Life provide an atmosphere that allows young rugby players to excel, but the team seems to have a mental fortitude that separates it from other elite sides.
“They’re a side that knows how to win,” admired Stephenson. “They are a composed side – they’ve got some cool heads.”
The Running Eagles will have to continue playing with composure on Saturday given that they are up against a red-hot Lions team. In its first two postseason matches, Lindenwood has out-muscled Air Force and Colorado State by a combined 128-24.
“I think it’s a combination of guys getting a little more experience and gaining cohesion, as well as peaking at the right time,” said Stephenson of his team’s scoring output thus far in the Playoffs.
There is no doubt Lindenwood has received quality performances from its entire roster to beat up on teams as good as Air Force and Colorado State. Still, the Lions have benefitted from enhanced play out of lock Nathan Rankin, who Stephenson describes as “tough as nails, fit as a fiddle, and gives you 100% every match.”
There is also number eight Sebastian Kalm and full back Gabe Farley. Both of whom are in fine form after missing time with the first XV – the back rower due to injury, while Farley played strictly with Lindenwood’s sevens side during the middle portion of its spring season.
The aforementioned trio of Lions has stepped up in the postseason, but the entire team brings a level of tenacity expected in win-or-go-home rugby.
“They come out hitting, that’s for sure,” said Daniels. “They’ve been able to hang around with us and their physicality is a big reason why.”
Lindenwood’s physical style will go a long way to pulling off the upset against Life, but they’ll need to do it for 80 minutes. In their March 7 meeting in Marietta, Ga., the Lions allowed the Running Eagles to jump out to a 22-0 lead. In a game that ended in a 25-21 victory for Life, the slow start on the part of the visitors cost them a chance to knock off the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
The May 2 contest between Life and Lindenwood to decide one half of the National Championship matchup will kick off at 12:30 p.m. ET and will be available to watch online via the Life U Network.