Wheeling Jesuit makes Playoff debut against No. 3 Davenport

D1A Rugby: Wheeling Jesuit makes Playoff debut against No. 3 Davenport
Photo Credit: Steve Zomberg (above & homepage)

BOULDER, Colo. – In what will be a rematch of a fall friendly, Davenport will take on Wheeling Jesuit in the opening round of the 2015 D1A Playoffs. In the previous meeting between the two schools, a two-try performance by hooker Gabe Sochanek helped propel the Panthers to a 39-10 win over the visiting Cardinals. However, Wheeling Jesuit has shown steady improvement during the spring semester after going 3-3 during the Rugby East’s fall season.

Ranked No. 16 back in January, the Cardinals used the strength of a 75-18 win over West Virginia and a hard-earned road victory against Navy to rise all the to No. 12 in the Canterbury D1A Top 20, and the program’s first ever postseason birth.

“They know what they’re getting into, they’re anxious to go against Davenport, but there is some extra excitement knowing that this is the first playoff game in WJU history,” said Head Coach Eric Jerpe

Like Wheeling Jesuit, Davenport has shown continued improvement during the course of the 2014-15 season. A reversal of results against Arkansas State is just one instance that exemplifies the positive strides the Panthers have made as a team. Back in October, Davenport hosted the Red Wolves and lost 49-12, but eventually beat its former Mid-South foe 16-7 in Arkansas. Most recently, the Panthers flipped the script on Lindenwood April 11 by beating the Lions 26-7, after losing to the same side just four weeks prior.

The 19-point victory was also the team’s first Mid-South victory since entering the conference for the 2012-13 season, and a potentially beneficial way to conclude the team’s regular season.

“It’s created some positive energy within the club, and guys are excited right now,” said Davenport Head Coach James Wood. “So, we’ll hope that we can utilize that to our advantage going forward.”

Momentum from the Panthers’ final Mid-South game of the season is nice, but it’s unlikely to make up for the loss of Angus MacLellan. The All-American prop has been selected for the USA Rugby Selects three-match tour of South America and won’t be available for Saturday’s contest. To compensate, starting tighthead prop Billy Dattulo will take MacLellan’s spot at loosehead, and capable frontrow reserve Brandon Bokhart will get the nod at tighthead. Showing his dedication to his college-side, MacLellan has been working against Dattulo and Bohkart this week in training to prepare the less experienced props prior to his departure to Florida for a National Team camp ahead of the international tour.

“He was gone earlier in the season, and he wasn’t around for our first match against Life,” Wood said of competing without his prized prop and team captain. “It’s not something we’re unfamiliar with.”

One reason Wood and his staff are “not overly worried” about entering the Playoffs minus MacLellan is that the team has the ability to lean on another All-American to take over the duties of captain – JP Eloff. Along with MacLellan and Sochanek, Eloff is part of a triple threat of seniors that are a big reason why the Panthers have risen to No. 3 Canterbury D1A Top 20.

Wheeling Jesuit has also recognized how important Eloff, who scored 14 points against the Cardinals in October, is to Davenport’s attack.

“If we can shut him down we’ll have a much better chance of slowing down their backline,” said Jerpe.”

The precise decision making and experienced boot of Eloff isn’t the only thing on the minds of Jesuit’s coaching staff, as the Cardinals have a slight concern of the team’s reaction if they get off to a slow start due to its young squad playing in its first-ever D1A Playoff game.

“We can’t get down on ourselves if things don’t go our way initially, but rather stick with our game plan.” Jerpe explained.

The winner of April 18’s match between Davenport vs. Wheeling Jesuit in Grand Rapids, Mich. will play Rugby East Champion and fifth-ranked Army May 25 in the D1A Quarterfinals.