LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Rugby East has long been considered one of the toughest conferences in the country, and its reputation was enhanced in the offseason. The University of Delaware is back in the fold in the East. A suspension kept the Blue Hens off the pitch for two seasons before they made their return to college rugby as a D1AA Independent side last season.
Delaware has expectations of finishing in the top half of the conference, but will have to fend off Rugby East’s traditional powers in order to do that. Army, Kutztown and Penn State, as they have been for several years, remain the premier East teams. Kutztown, despite losing to Penn State in the final week of the East season last year, claimed the conference title in 2015.
Iona’s steady improvement since its 2014 inclusion into Rugby East helped earned the boys from New Rochelle, N.Y., their first conference scalp when they knocked off Army last fall. The Gaels, however, will have to be much more consistent to produce multiple upsets this season. Buffalo and St. Bonaventure also joined the East in 2014, but have yet to notch a marquee victory.
West Virginia and Wheeling Jesuit are blooding new head coaches on campus, which could potentially stunt progress the two programs have made in recent years.
Army West Point Black Knights
Coming off a 2014 Rugby East Championship, West Point was a strong contender to repeat as conference champion following its 5-0 start last season. However, an unexpected loss on the road to Iona was followed by a 13-point defeat at the hands of Kutztown before closing its fall campaign with a loss to military rival Air Force.
Just when it looked like the wheels were falling off at West Point, the Black Knights earned spring semester wins against Dartmouth and on the road versus Utah and Navy.
“I’d like to see us improve throughout the entire year,” Head Coach Matt Sherman said of his second season with Army. “Last year we started strong, then regressed at the end of the fall before getting back to a pathway of improvement in the spring. It’s very difficult to do, but I’d like to see us continuing to improve consistently through the entire year.”
Improvement won’t be easy considering West Point graduated 16 seniors who are now commissioned officers in the United State Army, included forwards captain Donny Goff, back-line captain Jake Banarhall and point-scoring machine Thomas Del Pino. Fortunately for Sherman and his staff, the United States Military Academy has a knack for producing the best leaders imaginable.
“West Point is the world’s preeminent leadership institution, and we have a lot of guys chomping at the bit to step up both as players and leaders on the team,” Sherman boasted.
Andrew Fargo should be one of the cadets with an increased role. An All-Conference First Team selection in both 2014 and 2015, Fargo is a powerful center who requires a lot of attention. Fargo just might be paired in the centers with Luke Heun. The Firstie from Alaska has made a name for himself on the wing during his time at West Point, but started at inside center in Army’s Sept. 2, 49-3, win over Stony Brook.
Behind the aforementioned centers will be full back Jake Lachina. Despite missing several games last year due to injury, Lachina still finished the year tied for first on the team with eight tries. The hot-stepping junior is already off to an excellent start to the 2016 season by scoring twice last week against Stony Brook.
University at Buffalo Bulls
Buffalo has yet to win a Rugby East match in the two years it’s played in the conference, but the team looks to change that this fall. The positive outlook isn’t sheer preseason optimism, either, as the Bulls return some legitimate talent.
The team’s back-row trio are all seniors who each have All-Conference honors to their names. Eight man Tom Drietlin was an Honorable Mention selection last year, while Maninderjit Singh was a Second Team standout, and Colton Kells made the First Team in 2014.
That talent doesn’t stop in the forwards. The Bulls’ best back from 2015, John Grasso, is now a senior and has playmakers in Frank Nugent and Luca Wrabatz around him.
Buffalo’s roster is not only better in 2016, but its early results have been much better, too. A preseason tune up against Syracuse went quite well, as the Bulls blanked the 2015 Empire Conference Champions, 38-0.
“The guys took the offseason work seriously and are working very hard to install our systems on both attack and defense,” said Head Coach Mike Hodgins. “They have improved at both scrum and lineouts, and are playing much better defense.”
University of Delaware Blue Hens
Delaware is back in Rugby East after a two-year absence from the East Coast’s toughest conference. The Blue Hens have earned their way back, too. Not only has the program and its players done what’s necessary to repair its image off the pitch, the team played a very tough schedule as an Independent, including matches against Iona, Kutztown, Penn State and Wheeling Jesuit that saw Delaware into the D1AA National Playoffs.
“We were definitely pleased to be back playing and to get some wins,” second-year Head Coach Struan Murray said of last season. “I am so proud of the players for the off-the-pitch stuff that they worked hard on. That went better than I could have imagined.”
Now back in Rugby East, Delaware will have to grow up in a hurry. The team doesn’t have many seniors after having to rebuild its roster following a lengthy suspension.
“There were some moments of brilliance mixed with some moments of naiveté, which I think was to be expected,” reflected Murray. “We really need to be more consistent so that when we are going through bad patches during games, which we will, that we are able to minimize the damage.”
Over half of the Blue Hens’ projected starting lineup is made up of underclassmen. This will make the job of a trio of seniors that much more important. Prop Matt Hess and backs Tom Abram and John McCurdy will not only have to be productive individually, but assist with the maturity of their younger teammates.
Delaware might be a bit of a wildcard given it’s been away from the conference for a number of years, but they will be exciting to watch. Murray prefers an aggressive, fast-paced style that his players have taken a liking to.
“They want to play attractive rugby, and we fully support their level of ambition,” Murray added.
Iona College Gaels
A 4-3 conference record isn’t going to win any championships, but in the Rugby East Conference a winning record means you’re doing something right. That was Iona’s record last season after winning half as many East matches in 2014.
After making big strides in 2015 the question is – can Iona do it again in 2016?
“Yes, if we can be consistent,” said third-year Head Coach Bruce McLane. “For us to improve we need to beat some of the teams that have wiped the floor with us, and win the games we’ve won against tough bottom-half competition.”
McLane nailed it on the head – consistency. Iona looked superb at times, beating a then-undefeated Army side, 43-26. But the Gaels followed that performance with an uncompetitive, 44-point loss at Penn State.
If Iona can straighten out its issues pertaining to consistency, then the Gaels could be a real threat in Rugby East – because the talent is there. Although All-Conference forwards Andrew Rossi and Even Staikos have graduated, so too have Andy Cacinovic and Brandon Wynne, both of whom are now playing for the New York Athletic Club, there are still plenty of quality rugby players in the Iona program.
All three of McLane’s loose forwards can give opposing teams headaches, but Mike Marino is the most painstaking. The eight man has been a starter since he arrived on campus two years ago, and can run as well with ball in hand with the conference’s best centers.
There aren’t many weaknesses in the Gaels’ back line, but Mike Marro and Mike Scarcella are two worth keeping an eye on. Like Marino, Marro and Scarcella have started since their freshman year and should be well known commodities by season’s end.
While McLane likes the talented group of players he has to work with, he knows full well the team is only has good as his assistants, and McLane has a few good ones. The players have bought in to the teachings of backs coach Billy O’Connell and skills coach Mike Riordan, which bodes well for the development of the younger Gaels on the squad.
Kutztown University Golden Bears
Kutztown has been arguably the most consistent Rugby East team over the past few seasons, and that consistency earned the Golden Bears the 2015 Conference Championship. Still, all the winning the boys in Pennsylvania have been doing has not created any complacency.
“The Kutztown players look forward to each season with great anticipation,” said longtime Head Coach Greg ‘Doc’ Jones. “When you exclusively play 15s in the fall and sevens in the spring, it brings new challenges for the program and switches gears for the players. Every season is a refreshing change.”
Adding to the challenge of reverting back to fall 15s is the loss of some of Rugby East’s best players from last season. All-American loose forward Jordan Ghyzel and 2015 Rugby East Forward of the Year Wesley Hartmann have graduated, as have full back Trent Hensley and multi-time All-American Robert Stortz.
Further eliminating valuable experience from last year’s conference-winning team is the loss of tight head prop Andrew DeColi and All-American winger Alex Faison-Donahoe. The two veteran standouts are away from the program this semester to focus on internships.
Fortunately for Kutztown, the program has used its family-like environment to recruit ready-made rugby players, so several up-and-comers should be ready to impact the Golden Bears’ top side.
In terms of experienced returners, John Sage and David Snead have plenty of experience in the backs and will be key to the team’s attack. Meanwhile, senior hooker Johan Van Wyk is about as good as it gets in the No. 2 jumper, and second-rower Nick Holt will be one of the best forwards in the conference.
“The 2016 fall season will be a mixture of veterans and youth, giving Kutztown an exciting equation for the present, as well as the future,” said Jones. “The emphasis during the preseason will be focused on the establishment of team chemistry.”
The 2016 Rugby East season kicks off with a pair of Friday night contests Sept. 9. Army will host Iona in a revenge match after the Gaels upset West Point last season, and West Virginia travels to a Penn State team that has already notched a couple impressive preseason results.
Saturday, Sept. 10, will round out the conference’s opening weekend when St. Bonaventure takes on Buffalo.