BOULDER, Colo. – Life University and Saint Mary’s College have once again proved superior to the rest of the D1A Rugby field. The display of excellence has earned the top two ranked teams in the competition a third consecutive date at the USA Rugby College 15s National Championships.
As they did a year ago, the Running Eagles and Gaels went undefeated in league play on their way to Conference Championships. Also similar to last season is the fact that the D1A finalists were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the Canterbury Top 20 throughout the season.
Following its 21-6 topping of Life in the 2014 D1A Championship, Saint Mary’s held onto its No. 1 ranking for the entirety of the fall and early half of the spring semester before stumbling to both the Utes and Cougars during a weekend trip to Utah in March. The brief losing streak swapped the top two seeded teams, and Life’s ability to navigate through a difficult, four-match Mid-South season unscathed permitted the Running Eagles from relinquishing its place atop the Top 20 for the final four weeks of the season.
While the teams’ paths to the D1A Final might be similar to those taken last year, these aren’t the same two sides that will have 80 minutes to decide a National Champion as they did in 2013 and 2014. Life’s unblemished season was strung together after the departure of AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American OJ Auimatagi, Joe Cowley, and Zach Walker to graduation, as well as powerful front rower Paris Hollis, who had to step away from the program after allowing his grade point average to slip just below the team’s minimum requirement.
Unlike the Running Eagles, Saint Mary’s kept its star-studded front row of Mike O’Neil, Ryan Pratt, and Dino Waldren intact for the 2014-15 season, but rather took a hit in the half backs. Gone from the reigning Champion’s roster is field marshal Joey Reavey, team MVP Kyle Peterson, and fly half Garrett Brewer, who came to epitomize the Gaels’ run-and-gun attack.
Even without the ball-handling abilities of Brewer and Reavey, this Saint Mary’s team is still capable of spreading the ball from touch line to touch line at a feverous pace. The style of play has earned Saint Mary’s the description as a “wild card” from Life Head Coach Tui Osborne.
“They’re unpredictable,” said the first-year lead man after years of assisting the undergrad team at Life. “You never know what they are going to do next. It’s something we’ll have to figure out on Saturday and try to find solutions for.”
The Gaels are even less predictable on attack with senior sensation Kingsley McGowan now donning the No. 10 jersey. Since moving to first receiver after nearly two full seasons at outside center, the elusive All-American from Houston is getting his hands on the ball more often, and keeping defenses from pinning their ears back in fear that McGowan might slip right behind them.
In McGowan, Saint Mary’s has a highlight reel waiting to happen and a player who has a legitimate shot at competing in Rio in 2016. In Dylan Audsley, the Gaels have a likely team MVP for the 2014-15 season, as the inside center has been one of the most consistently-impressive performers in college rugby during Saint Mary’s compact and challenging schedule.
“Dylan had an amazing work ethic last year, but he’s somehow managed to take it to another level this year,” McGowan said in amazement. “And without a few guys in the back line from last year like Garrett, Joey, and Bubba [Jones], he’s decided to take it upon himself to step up and take his game to the next level. We really depend on him a lot.”
Less stockpiled with All-Americans, Life still boasts their share in forwards captain Glen Maricelli and fly half Blane Mcllroy. Maricelli, an eight man from Montana, has a polished game that allows him to do a bit of everything on the pitch, and Mcllroy has excelled at both distributing the ball and collecting points off of the tee. The duo has also had a hand in the maturation process of a freshman class that has been called on heavily to put their stamp on this Championship season.
Last week in Life’s 43-14 Semifinal win over Lindenwood, Osborne ran out seven freshmen in the first XV. While he couldn’t be more proud of the young unit, he was especially pleased with first-year front rower Alex Maughan.
“He has really matured – especially in the last few games,” complimented Osborne. “He’s taken on the opportunity really well, and kudos to him because he’s worked hard for his spot and he’s excited about the upcoming opportunity.”
The amount of underclassmen expected to contribute in the D1A Final doesn’t leave the Gaels any more confident in their chances on Saturday.
“It’s a National Championship game, so it’s going to come down to who is better on that given day,” McGowan said. “Sure, Life has young guys, but they are there for a reason and get put into high-pressure situations at practice and play in a tough Mid-South Conference.”
The respect for Life doesn’t stop with its impressive freshman class.
“They know rugby,” McGowan continued. “They’re probably the most technically sound team I’ve played against.”
Saint Mary’s might have the edge in the experience department, but the Running Eagles will gain an advantage in the comforts of competing at the College 15s National Championships just a few miles from their campus. Last year, a raucous crowd of Saint Mary’s faithful lent momentum to the Gaels when the two schools competed at Stanford – less than 50 miles from the Gaels’ campus in Moraga, Calif.
This year, Life is expecting a sea of green at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University to provide an emotional boost for the Running Eagles. Crowd support will be nice, but the 30 players on the pitch will be deciding Saturday’s National Championship match.
“We’re two great teams with two contrasting styles,” said McGowan. “It should be another epic match.”
The D1A Final will be the headlining event at the May 9 2015 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships. Before Life and Saint Mary’s take to the field for the third time in as many years, National Champions will be crowned in the Men’s D1AA and Women’s DI and DII fields – all of which will be available to watch live on USA Rugby TV. The D1A National Championship match, which will kick off at 4 p.m. ET, will air live on ESPN3.