From a field of over seventy teams there are now just four left. This Saturday Saint Mary’s College and Life University will host the 2017/18 D1A National Semifinals. In what is shaping up to be a weekend of tightly fought and exciting fixtures two teams will advance for a chance to claim the National Championship Title.
Semifinal 1: Life vs. Penn State:
The first semifinal this weekend will see a rematch between two strongest programs along the East Coast this year, Penn State and Life. When both teams met back in November, it was a high scoring affair, with Life coming away victorious 51-34. This weekend’s encounter should be just as exciting, if the coaches’ predictions are anything to go off. When asked about what has changed since their last encounter, Justin Hundley, Penn State’s Head Coach noted, “I think both teams have gotten better over the last few months. That last game was on the tail end of our season and the very start of theirs and we learned a lot about ourselves in that match. Nothing drastic has changed, we have just gotten better at executing in moments that we let slip in that game.”
Life’s coach, Colton Cariaga, had a similar sentiment to express, “what has not changed is their ability to pile up points in a short amount of time! They are still doing that as recent as last week. But also, they’re playing some pretty expansive rugby and have found success with it. Defensively they’ve been good at identifying the threats and slowing down the speed of ball with the tackle tactics they use.”
As mentioned by Cariaga, Penn State was able to win a massive game last weekend, one which Hundley is eager for his team to enjoy, but move on from. “We had a talk about that and we cannot rest. Every week the competition gets tougher and tougher and we need to be better than we were the week before,” Hundley explained.
For Life this will be their seventh trip to the D1A semifinals, for Penn State they made it this far in the Varsity Cup last year. Both teams have big game experience and will be relying on their experiences to help carry them through the game on Saturday. For Cariaga and his men it will be about focusing on their opposition and dictating the style of play that Life wants to play. Cariaga notes that a large characteristic of Penn State’s play is their resiliency and in order to win this game Life will have to find ways of eliminating that element of their game. “A big one is going to be hustling on transition. That’s where they can be very good. They make big plays so you have to limit those and try to reverse the momentum if they do get one,” Cariaga explained further.
Penn State will look to embrace the moment, and not be over awed by it according to Hundley, “there are a handful of them (players) that have been in a similar situation before. But we are looking at it as another game, you can’t focus too much on the atmosphere and must focus on the rugby. As long as we use the nerves in the right way, we will accomplish what we set out to do. Being nervous is natural, but it’s about if you let them affect you in a positive or negative way.”
Semifinal 2: Lindenwood vs. Cal:
The second match of the weekend promises to be just as enticing as the first match. With Lindenwood and Cal going toe to toe. For Lindenwood this will be their fourth semifinal in five years, while Cal will be returning to the D1A championship series, after having played the last several years in the Varsity Cup. The last time they made it this far in the D1A Championships they won the whole thing, back in 2011.
Both teams enjoy playing an up-tempo style of play. For Lindenwood they have a dynamic half pairing that will look to create the opportunities for their team. Their forwards will do hard work around the breakdowns in order to try and slow Cal’s ball down and obtain the occasional pilfer. Lindenwood will be ready for whatever challenges are thrown their way, as they’ve faced some top level competition throughout the year. They have already played Life University twice, and having beaten Saint Mary’s last weekend they will be filled with confidence in their ability to advance to their first D1A Championship match.
This won’t be an easy task for Lindenwood as Cal has a stout defense and are incredibly proficient at playing a quick aggressive and expansive style of play. Their defense through the regular season was impeccable only letting in under ten points per game, while averaging over fifty points a game. In the playoffs, they were able to handle Grand Canyon with ease and were put up against a stiff challenge from Navy, but ultimately prevailed. They will be looking to draw their experience in big games over the past years to carry them through this tough match.
In what will be a close match up that will likely go down to the waning moments of the game do not be surprised if the determining factor of who wins this game comes down to who is able to cause more havoc in the breakdown. The team that can stifle and contest possession more effectively, will likely be heading to Santa Clara next weekend.
This game will be broadcast at 4:30pm EST on CBS Sports Network and through The Rugby Channel.