BOULDER, Colo. – The Mid-South Conference, although small in numbers, is huge in terms of competitive strength. Odd to define a conference as competitive when the reigning champion, Life University, hasn’t lost a Mid-South match the past two seasons. However, the Running Eagles didn’t win one of their four 2015 conference games by more than sevens points, and, if you set aside Davenport’s 26-7 win over Lindenwood, the five Mid-South fixtures were won by a mere average of 4.2 points per contest.
The trio of programs that make up the conference aren’t highly regarded because their matches against one another seem to come down to the wire. These teams are each currently ranked in the top six of Canterbury’s Top 20 in part because of their postseason success.
Life reached its third consecutive D1A National Championship Final, while Davenport and Lindenwood reached the Semifinals. The Mid-South continued its show of dominance in sevens. At the 2015 USA Rugby College 7s National Championships, the Panthers and Lions navigated their way to a Cup Final showdown that resulted in a national sevens title for Lindenwood.
The 2016 Mid-South season figures to be another barnburner, with all three sides expected to qualify for the 12-team D1A Playoffs. Of course, the conference champion will have the easiest route to the 2016 D1A National Championship Final – just one reason to keep a close eye on the Mid-South over the next six weeks.
The Panthers proved they could play with anyone in the country last season when they went to Life and pushed the Running Eagles to the brink of a tie until a Blane Mcllroy penalty goal on the game’s last play preserved Life’s conference winning streak, 28-25. Following the 2015 graduation of key leaders and All-Americans like JP Eloff, Angus MacLellan, and Gabe Sochanek, it remains to be seen if Davenport can match the class of Life this season.
“We did take a pretty massive hit in the experience and leadership departments – there’s no denying that,” admitted Davenport Head Coach James Wood. “We’re not looking for anyone to fill the void of those individuals as much as we’re asking the current guys to put their own mark on things.”
Losing a player of Eloff’s caliber, who’s coming off a try-scoring appearance in the Eagles’ win over Chile, is no easy task, but the Panthers still have plenty of firepower in their back line. Reece Czarnecki, Mike Houston, Kevin Lydon, and Sevens All-American Anthony Welmers all have plenty of starting experience. In the forwards, Carl Smith is a difference-maker at No. 8, and props Brandon Bokhart and Will Dattulo are both seniors and pack a solid punch.
Even with talented players from the team’s 2015 Semifinal run back in action, Davenport played through inconsistencies during its fall preseason schedule. Wins versus formidable Midwest programs Bowling Green, Notre Dame College, and Western Michigan came rather easily for the Panthers. On the other side, a one-point loss to No. 4 Indiana is a game they’d like back, and losses to Arkansas State and the Chicago Lions were troublingly one-sided.
The fall setbacks are less troublesome to the Davenport coaching staff, which is more focused on allowing younger players an opportunity to play against high-level competition and testing combinations amongst returning starters.
“We had our fair share of off moments, but that’s what the fall is for in our minds,” said Wood. “It’s the time to move people around, and try some things with the bench that, if [the game] counted, you might not normally do.”
The truth about the Panthers, and any team that has been buried in snow the last few months, is that we know little about them.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Wood said. “It’s always a bit difficult to know exactly where we stand coming out of the winter up here. We rarely see time outdoors, and when we do it’s sporadic and limited at best.”
As for any potential rivalry brewing after Lindenwood prevented Davenport from claiming a National Championship at College 7s in Colorado, there appears to be nothing but love between the two teams hoping to dethrone Life in 15s.
“I’m in no rush to provide [Lindenwood Head Coach] JD [Stephenson] with any bulletin board fodder,” joked Wood. “Our clubs ended up staying in the same hotel in Denver, so our guys had to interact with one another off the pitch a good bit during the stay. I think there is a mutual respect between the two clubs, and like any good mutual respect in athletics – it takes a short hiatus come game time.”
Consistency in terms of results has been a hallmark of Life’s rugby program. Since winning the 2013 D1A National Championship, the Running Eagles’ only losses have come in the 2014 and 2015 national title games to Saint Mary’s. Things have been less consistent in terms of who’s holding the clipboard on the Life bench.
In September, Scott Lawrence was appointed head coach of Life’s undergrad team – just a year after Tui Osborne took over for Dan Payne. Like Osborne, Lawrence is a longtime Life assistant, making the transition a seamless one.
The more difficult transition to manage could be in the forward pack where the Running Eagles are forced to replace multi-year starters Jake Anderson, Xander Daniels, Fotukava Malu, and captain Glen Maricelli
“Quality student-athletes are always missed,” said Lawrence. “The men we have now are a different type – a blue collar group.”
That group includes a pair of front-rowers who are only sophomores, but proven commodities, in Estevan Florez and Alex Maughan. In the back row, Zach Warren has been around the program for a long time and is as tough as they come.
As for the back line, there appears to be a glutton of talent. Blane Mcllroy is a sure-handed fly half with an accurate boot. Zander Van Schalkwyk is now a junior and can play multiple positions. Additionally, there is an impressive group of sophomores ready for increased roles. Center Cody Melphy is a part of that unit and comes to Marietta, Ga., by way of the Glendale Raptors. Conner Mooneyham and U20 All-Americans Duncan Van Schalkwyk and Mitchell Wilson factored into Life’s season last year as freshmen, and will bag plenty of tries in 2016.
The battle for the No. 9 jumper is still being battled between capable scrum halves Kevin Lynch and Marcus Walsh, and it’s very likely to see each get playing time for Life’s varsity side.
One player worth watching is Harley Davidson. As a freshman, Davidson was Life’s dangerman in the midfield on the team’s run to a 2014 D1A Final. Last year, the speedster from Boise, Idaho, battled injuries and was never able to make an impact on the pitch.
“Harley has been working his tail off to get healthy,” commended Lawrence. “We don’t know where he fits in with the other talent out there, but we’ve put him in our system where we feel he can contribute to the team in a way that fits his game.”
Mid-South results from last spring suggest Davenport and Lindenwood are closing in on Life and its stranglehold on the conference title. Still, dominating nonconference wins over Air Force, the Clemson Tigers, and South Carolina over the last four weeks demonstrate that the Running Eagles have plans to continue their run of conference championships.
In 2014, Lindenwood seemingly came out of nowhere to reach the D1A Semifinal, but were handed several harsh lessons in a 72-7 beat down from eventual Champion Saint Mary’s. Nearly two years later, the Lions went back to Moraga, Calif., and proved they’ve grown as a program in their recent Jan. 25 fixture that results in an 11-point loss to the Gaels.
To ensure the team is ready for the four-match Mid-South gauntlet, Lindenwood’s friendly against Saint Mary’s was just one of several nonconference games used to prepare the team. The Lions dominated Dartmouth and Yale during their East Coast tour, and faced minimally more pressure when defeating Santa Clara and Arizona.
“The scheduling of tough programs allows for a measuring stick, and allows for better team, unit, and individual development,” explained Lindenwood Head Coach JD Stephenson.
So, did the Lions do enough this offseason to overthrown Life in the Feb. 27 Mid-South opener?
“As a coach, you would always like more time with the side heading into a match,” Stephenson added. “However, we feel we have ticked the boxes to be competitive this Saturday.”
Lindenwood players not only developed from college friendlies, but Junior All-American duties, as well. Four freshmen were plucked from the Lions roster to represent USA in the U20s’ Feb. 13 win over Canada. Included in that group of Junior All-Americans is Lorenzo Thomas. The skilled center did enough against Canada’s U20s that he got called up for the Eagles’ next match against Chile and scored a try in his debut test match.
There are plenty of upperclassmen to lead the Lions charge, though. Sione Fangaiuiha and Morgan Findlay are still patrolling the back line. Up front, Tama Paogofie-Buyten is a talented back-row player, and All-Americans Michael Gierlach and Sebastian Kalm bring invaluable experience to the lineup. Former age-grade All-American and flanker Wes Parker is coming off a superb freshman campaign, and could quickly elevate himself to one of the better players in the conference.
Las year, half backs Mickey Bateman and Giovanni Falco entered the program and immediately bolstered Lindenwood’s ball-handling positions. Both players remain in St. Charles, Mo., but scrum half and Arkansas State transfer Michael Baska, as well as former Irish academy player Tadhg Leader, join a crowded but extremely dynamic half back pool.
“We have some very talented halves in our program, and the battle will continue this week prior to the naming of our side,” said Stephenson. “We are very fortunate to have the depth that we do, and it is something we pride ourselves on, that the success of our first XV is a reflection of the hard work of all members of our program.”
In an attempt to avoid colder temperatures, Life will host the Feb. 27 Mid-South opener against Lindenwood, and welcome Davenport to Marietta a week later. The Lions will be the home team for the conference’s March 12 and 19 fixtures, and Davenport will stay home for the Mid-South’s two April contests.
Saturday’s game between Life and Lindenwood is set to kick off at 1 p.m. ET and will be streamed live on the Life U Network.