BOULDER, Colo. – Division 1A’s Mid-South Conference is college rugby’s equivalent of college football’s Southeastern Conference (SEC). From top to bottom, each team has an incredibly skilled roster and some of the very best coaches guiding them.
When the dust settles at the end of the D1A regular season, there will ultimately be one team that finishes at the bottom of the Mid-South standings. That team could very well play in another D1A conference and have outstanding odds of finishing first in the conference. This estimation is not a knock on the other five conferences in D1A, it is simply a hypothetical scenario to explain just how powerful the Mid-South is.
The four-team conference is comprised of Arkansas State, Davenport, Life University and Lindenwood. When speaking with the head coaches of each program, there were three common factors as to why they thought the conference boasts such impressive teams: incredible coaching, the ability to recruit terrific rugby players and support from their respective universities’ administration.
Arkansas State and Life are the two well-known commodities of the group. Life is the reigning D1A National Champion, while Arkansas State has won back-to-back USA Rugby College 7s National Championships.
Davenport and Lindenwood are each relatively new to college rugby’s elite competition. Davenport won two consecutive Division I-AA National Championships starting in 2011 before they launched into D1A. Lindenwood showed they belonged with the big boys after winning a Division II National Championship in 2012, and reaching the finals of the 2013 Division I-AA competition. Currently, each of the four Mid-South teams ranks in the top seven of D1A’s Top 20 rankings.
The Mid-South’s coaches even seem to root for one another knowing that heightened competition among their counterparts will only make their own program better.
“We’re rugby programs committed to being a part of such a strong conference,” said Life Head Coach Dan Payne. “We’re like-minded coaches and we agree the best competition is best for our players and the sport as a whole. We wouldn’t be nearly as good as we are if we haven’t had our battles through the years with Arkansas State, and last year with Davenport and now you throw Lindenwood into the mix. Each team is going to push us forward.”
New head coach NeMani ‘Mani’ Delaibatiki takes over the powerful Arkansas State program that was revitalized during a 14-year stretch in which Curt Huckaby Sr. ran the team. Following Curt Sr.’s brilliant coaching career at ASU, his son and former USA Rugby All-American Matt took over the head coaching duties in 2010.
“Without the Huckaby family our program would not be here,” said Mani. “Coach Curt (Huckaby) has been a big contributor to USA Rugby at the grassroots level, and Matt (Huckaby) has continued that. For me, I have big shoes to fill. These guys have not only done a lot for ASU rugby, but they’ve done a lot for college rugby as a whole.”
Delaibatiki’s sentiment for Huckaby Sr. and what he has done for rugby in American can be felt on opposing sidelines as well.
“I met Coach Huckaby (Curt Sr.) while I was coaching at San Diego State,” recalled Payne. “His enthusiasm toward building a college rugby program and his passion for competing on the field, but also appreciating his competition off it was something I’ve always admired and tried to mirror in my own growth as a coach. He has been a great example to me and many other coaches and players across the south and the country as a whole. “
The senior Huckaby’s vision and passion for college rugby has come to fruition as the Mid-South Conference plays the most skilled brand of rugby in the country, and his Red Wolves are consistently in the mix for a National Championship.
This year’s Arkansas State squad is led by a couple of natural leaders in AIG USA Rugby All-American Shaun Potgieter playing eight-man and Harry Higgins from the second row. Returning to Arkansas State after taking a year off due to injury is Sean Paterson. The hooker/flanker is healthy and should contribute in a big way.
The Red Wolves’ dangerous backline was on display yet again this fall at the College 7s National Championship. The Cup winners got terrific play from Zin-Zan Elan-Puttick, Dylan Carrion and Tom Haussrer. Carrion ignites the offense from scrumhalf using his pass, but can also catch a defense on their heels with his feet. Elan-Puttick and Haussrer are speedsters who can score from just about anywhere on the pitch.
Coach Kruger VanBiljon has done a masterful job in his four years as Davenport’s head coach. VanBiljon’s Panthers currently sit as the sixth-best team in D1A’s rankings and can be counted on as being both physical and athletic.
What Davenport did not count on was playing the D1A season without AIG All-American JP Eloff. The flyhalf who possesses one of the best foots in college rugby is out for the season after tearing his ACL and meniscus at the Las Vegas Invitational. Now, Brady Gent and Alex Dorrier will be called on to replace Eloff. Both players are talented, but neither have the experience of Eloff.
Fortunately for Davenport they return some muscle up front. Angus MacLellan is back on campus after spending the past summer in Australia and fall months in Ireland working on his craft from the prop position. Joining MacLellan in the front row is fellow 2013 AIG All-American Gabe Sochanek.
Even without Eloff, Davenport has weapons in the backline. Mike Houston is currently resting an injury, but once he returns he will be a force at center. Sondai Adjei is a very capable runner filling in for Houston at the moment. Attacking the edges and expected to have breakout seasons are Mason Baum and USA Rugby College 7s All Tournament selection Reece Czarnecki.
Coach VanBiljon, who will be stepping away from Davenport University at the season’s end, is proud of what the program has accomplished during his tenure and is excited for the direction the program is headed.
“We’ve been progressing the last four years and we just want to play against the best in the country,” VanBiljon said. “I think our conference shows what rugby can be when schools invest in the sport.”
Dan Payne has helped build something special in Marietta, Georgia. Payne’s coaching and ability to get his young, talented players to buy into the program’s structure culminated in a National Championship for the team in 2013.
Like any top program, Life graduated some impressive players, a number of whom were key components in establishing what Life Rugby is today. Two of those players who moved on were AIG All-Americans Cam Dolan and Colton Carriaga. Still, the Running Eagles return plenty of valuable pieces that make Payne’s squad capable of making it back to the National Championship.
Captaining this year’s unit will be OJ Auimatagi and Joe Cowley. Both players received AIG All-American recognition last season, and Cowley is simply one of the most well-rounded backline players in college rugby.
Adding to Life’s list of returning All-Americans are Paris Hollis and Zach Walker at loosehead and tighthead prop respectively, as well as Glen Maricelli. Hollis is an especially dynamic player. The junior plays with as much strength and physicality as anyone in the country, yet displayed plenty of pace at the College 7s National Championship in Life’s run to winning the Plate.
Another player to keep an eye on is Harley Davidson. Just a freshman, Davidson has game changing speed and will spend time at both center and wing for Life this spring.
Payne, who Davenport’s head coach VanBiljon complimented as the “best college coach in the business,” doesn’t believe his team feels any additional pressure being the reigning National Champions.
“Winning a championships is so tough to do in our country at this level,” said Payne. “You relish it when it happens, but we don’t talk about our end-goals. We focus a lot on our process and getting better.”
2014 will be a season of change for Lindenwood. For starters, Ron Laszewski recently stepped down as head coach for the program he helped start in 2011. Laszewski quickly built a fine rugby team that won the DII National Championship in 2012, and the team’s success quickly earned them its place in the Mid-South Conference.
Taking over as head coach is JD Stephenson, who will guide the Lions in their inaugural D1A season. Stephenson is not new to the St. Charles campus. The Australian-born coach is going into his third season on the Lindenwood staff, and also oversees the women’s rugby program as the university’s director of rugby.
Now that the program has had a few years under its belt to recruit, Lindenwood is a much deeper team, which has naturally pushed its players harder to earn their spot in the starting fifteen.
Stephenson tends to coach a more southern hemisphere style of play that fits perfectly for one of his standout players in Morgan Finley. The fullback is keen to set up defenders off either foot, a solid defender and is electric in the counter attack.
Lindenwood has a set of talented halfbacks in Nick Markowski, Ben O’Donnell and Mickey Bateman. While that group will have their hands on the ball plenty, Austin Tijerina and Jeremy Leber provide muscle in the front row. Stephenson has been especially impressed with Tijerina, who is not only good in the scrum, but can also handle the ball and run effectively.
Not to be overlooked is back row forward Michael Gierlach. The coaching staff loves Gierlach’s motor and Coach Stephenson says “there is nothing flashy about him, but he does all of the one-percent stuff and that’s why we really like him.”
The Lions undoubtedly have talent on their roster, but they are still new kid on the block in the Mid-South. The team’s first ever D1A matchup is against Arkansas State Feb. 22.