North Division winner Baylor and South Division winner No. 16 LSU will determine who is top dog in the conference Saturday evening in the first Red River Conference Championship game at 5:30 p.m. CT. It is the first time the two teams have met this season. And with an automatic bid to the D1A Playoffs on the line, there is little room for error for two sides that eye a deep push in to the postseason picture.
The Red River North and South Division leaders have had roughly a month to prepare for this weekend’s anticipated game. The 7-1 Bears wrapped up their regular season with a convincing 42-15 win over Texas Tech, putting their average points per game at just over 42 in the process for the spring. The lone blemish on Baylor’s record was a 37-0 shutout to Oklahoma back in November.
In that match, head coach Mason Hering simply said the team laid an egg and was completely unprepared. Since then the team’s confidence has drastically changed for the better.
“I think our guys respond well to seizing the moment,” Hering said. “We have this fighter’s mentality that you’re never done with the match until the final whistle. The boys do a great job staying focused and committed to doing whatever it takes to get the win.”
Hering added that the biggest benefit no games in March was the team getting back to 100 percent. The routine has been the same as usual despite this, with the added bonus of extra practice for reserve players and planning for the Tigers.
“We haven’t changed much, honestly. It’s given us a little time to rest some key guys and work in some of the reserves that haven’t had as much time on the pitch,” Hering added. “We’ve had some good weeks of practice and even some down time away from rugby with Spring Break that have helped us to stay loose. We are excited and ready for this weekend though.”
It is a similar story for LSU, whose confidence has also risen as the team went a perfect 8-0 in conference play. The biggest boost, however, may have been the loss to Arkansas State back in February; a game that was much different from the first meeting in November, and displayed that the Tigers could hold their own against ranked competition.
Since then LSU never relinquished the top spot in the South Division. A forfeit by Arkansas and a cancelled match with Houston due to weather cut the Tigers’ spring a little short, but in the meantime its been a similar routine for LSU leading up to April 1st.
“Aside from the addition of a few more fitness sessions we have remained focused on the details of our own game,” said LSU Rugby Vice President Zach Stratton. “We were unfortunately plagued with cancelations and weather during the month of March, but that has given us a chance to focus on the championship.”
Stratton also was swift to give praise to freshman hooker Hunter Breit, who has not disappointed since making the starting 15.
“Having guys like Hunter step into the lineup has been huge,” Stratton added. “He not only can get around the field but has been consistently solid kicking for post. As a team we have focused on defense and making tackles.”
He also pointed out the play of flanker Joe Ruocco. The senior has been clutch in conversions all year long, and doubles as a viable threat to touch down if given the opportunity.
It has been a similar story for Baylor’s Parker Vincent, who has remained reliable in the kicking game when needed most. He was most notably crucial in a narrow 15-8 victory over Texas A&M with a successful conversion and penalty kick.
Above all for the green and gold has been the lights out play of senior 8-Man and team captain Pete Hamm. Barreling through tackles all year long, Hering commented Baylor’s year starts and ends with Hamm, both as a pitch commander and a leader in strength and conditioning.
“He’s a huge part of our game plan and really gives us a powerful weapon on attack,” Hering said. “If he gets going, the other guys really respond and follow his lead. He’s not the only weapon though. If we get quick ball regularly we can set some of our athletes loose in space which can also cause problems for our opponents.”
Hamm will be the biggest key to helping yield a Tigers offense that has scored over 30 points against every conference opponent this season. By being such a key body on the pitch, LSU will keep a close eye on Baylor’s captain.