BOULDER, Colo. – The Rugby East Conference has a long and proud tradition of excellent college rugby. The Conference also had ambitions to grow in numbers, and the dominant collegiate rugby competition on the east coast did just that by adding Buffalo University, Iona College, and St. Bonaventure University to its ranks.
Rugby East’s Army, Kutztown, and Penn State have been three of the most consistently capable rugby programs in the country in recent history, while Wheeling Jesuit is a young, up-and-coming varsity program. That being said, neither of the three newcomers to Rugby East are expected to compete for a Conference title this season, but the move up in competition should improve those teams’ player development and recruiting in a hurry, making Rugby East stronger – top to bottom – moving forward.
West Point is one of two teams from Rugby East excited to get back to the pitch this fall after serving suspensions last season. Army missed out on its Conference schedule due to a team infraction the previous season. Although losing out on the opportunity to play its East rivals was massively disappointing, Head Coach and Director of Rugby Mike Mahan described last year’s successful spring tour of Texas as a “huge help going into this year.”
Along with its women’s rugby team, Army is now a varsity program and fully affiliated with the school’s athletic department. The newly acquired varsity status has improved the team’s strength and conditioning program, as well as many other areas of running a top-notch rugby program. The added benefits come just in time as the Cadets lost 22 players to graduation, including 13 starters, from last year’s team.
The two returning starters are flanker and captain Cullum Magee and second-rower Ben Foley. The two will be heavily counted on to lead the team around the park each week, and represent the strength of this Army team: the mobility of the team’s forwards.
In the backs, scrum half Jake Banarhall, center Andrew Fargo, winger David Huff, and full back Logan Pearce all have high expectations of themselves as well as those of the coaching staff. Huff, only a freshman, has speed to burn, while Pearce can put points on the board for West Point.
After a 2013 season which saw Buffalo finish in the middle of the Empire Conference’s standings, the 2014 Bulls might not be ready to knock off the likes of Kutztown just yet. Still, Head Coach Mike Hodgins has a hard-working group that proved last week it will not give up no matter what the scoreboard reads.
Not only is Buffalo tough-minded, but they are young, too. Hodgins only has five seniors on his roster, meaning plenty of underclassmen will play valuable A-side matches this fall. The Bulls also return a quality freshmen class from last season that began to impress Hodgins and his staff when they stepped onto campus last fall. Included in that now-sophomore class is flanker Colton Kells and outside center John Grasso. Kells found the try zone seven times in his freshmen campaign, while Grasso has a high rugby IQ and has already stepped up as a leader on the team.
Buffalo won’t have to rely on its youngsters alone, though. Captain Colin Tucker and Tim Murray are strong locks and bring veteran stability to the Bulls’ first XV. The forwards as a unit are good on their feet, and the back-row forwards are particularly disruptive around the rucks.
On paper, Iona might seem like the least likely candidate of the three former Empire Rugby teams to succeed in Rugby East. New Head Coach Bruce McLane figures to change that sentiment – in a hurry. And it looks like the culture is well on its way to a positive improvement with Iona’s recent win over St. Bonaventure, a team they lost to by 90 points last year.
“We decided to join the Rugby East Conference because it is the strongest conference, but we also understand that we are going to be up against it and understand it’s going to be a massive challenge,” said McLane. “So, we are going to have to go through some growing pains to get to where we want to be.”
McLane joined the program in the spring, allowing him to use his deeply-rooted east coast rugby ties to bring in some impressive freshmen to the New Rochelle, N.Y., campus. From decorated Xavier High School of New York, John Strehle, Mike Marino, and Dylan Evans will each have opportunities to make an instant impact. Fellow freshmen Michael Scarcella and Michael Morro come by way of Bishop Hendrickson in Rhode Island and have already cracked Iona’s first XV.
Luckily for McLane and his staff, the Gaels have a three-headed leadership core of seniors, all of whom play in the tight-five. Hooker Andrew Rossi, lock John Cullen, and prop Brandon Wynne have experience and benefit a team that doesn’t have a ton of size.
Iona may not be quite as athletic 1-15, but the team will be more than capable in set pieces and will attempt to prey on opposing teams’ mistakes.
The Golden Bears of Kutztown had a season for the ages last year. After winning Rugby East last fall, Kutztown went on to win the ACRC invitational and placed second at the Collegiate Rugby Championship 7s invitational in the spring.
Amazingly enough, longtime Head Coach Doc Jones only loses four starters from last year’s team. Unfortunately for Jones, two of those players were All-Americans in Michael Lawrenson and Bruce Dolan. Lawrenson will be especially missed. The long but strong lock dominated lineouts and was a focal point in the team’s multiple-phase attack. However, Jones is more than confident that six-foot-four lock Nick Hohlt, with the guidance of returning All-American No. 8 Wes Hartmann, will be up to the challenge of replacing Lawrenson.
There isn’t a more experienced halfback in college rugby than Niku Kruger. The All-American and South Africa-native possesses a strong pass from the base of the ruck and will command the backline along with senior fly half Brad Frederick.
In the centers, former Junior All-American Nu’u Aiava and sophomore Johnathan Sage bring a ton of athleticism. Given the proper decision-making and accurate passing of Kruger and Frederick, these two young playmakers can focus on gashing defenses with downhill line breaks.
Adding more fuel to the Kutztown offense is the return of wing Robert Stortz. The former sevens All-American missed last season recovering from a torn ACL, and has already shown early this season he has not forgotten how to find the try zone.
As with any Kutztown team in recent history, the 2014 Golden Bears will feature a structured and physically intimidating defense thanks to Assistant Coach Larry Chester.
The inappropriate actions of a few caused Penn State to lose a spring semester’s worth of rugby last year. The punishment motivated the returning Nittany Lions, who worked their tails off in the summer to prepare for this season.
“Last spring was difficult for us with the suspension we went through, but guys bounced back relatively well,” said Director of Rugby Chris Amoratis. “As always, we are looking to compete at the upper level of D1A. It’s always a goal of ours to play for a USA Rugby National Championship.”
After an impressive, 30-6 win over Davenport last week, Penn State looks to have the pieces in place to make a run at the National Championship the program desires.
Although the team graduated All-American Dom DeFalco, Honorable Mention All-American second-rower Dan Metcalf returns to lead the forward pack. Metcalf will be joined in the forwards by Junior All-American Malcolm May. The open-side flanker is big and athletic, and comes off a summer in which he performed well at the Youth Olympic Games.
Up front, Amoratis is overseeing a position battle at hooker between Tom Bashara and Andrew Iscaro, but Amoratis is confident whoever is wearing the No. 2 jersey will make a big impact for the Nittany Lions.
Replacing DeFalco at scrum half will be no easy task, but freshman Jimmy Ronan looks up to the task. Ronan comes from heralded Gonzaga High, and looks ready for Division I college rugby. Assisting Ronan will be Ross Morris, who is cemented at the No. 10 position after splitting time between fly half and full back last season.
The team has the athletes and patterns in place to play an open, running rugby style, but is still working on being more physical at the breakdown – something Rugby East is known for.
The Bonnies have had a consistently solid program for a number of years, and are coming off of a season in which they tied for the most points in the Empire Conference.
“The reason we are moving up is that we are always looking to challenge ourselves,” explained Head Coach Clarence Picard. “Although we were still getting good games out of the Empire Conference with teams like Stony Brook and Brockport always fielding strong teams, we thought the move was the best thing for our players. We want to make sure they are being challenged everyday.”