Sixteen men’s collegiate DI-AA teams fight for spot in National Semifinal

BOULDER, Colo. – Four college campuses will host the 2014 Division I-AA Regional Playoffs. A single team will advance from each site, and in doing so, play for a National Championship at Stanford University from May 10-11.

The National Regionals’ 16 participants took different paths to reach the playoffs, but each is battle-tested and hungry for a spot in the National Semifinal.

Northeast Regional – Penn State University
State College, Pa.

West Virginia vs. Princeton
The Mountaineers’ rugby program has had a remarkable turnaround this season. After going winless in conference play last year, West Virginia finished with a 5-1 conference record in the fall – its only loss being a one-point heartbreaker to St. Josephs. This spring, the success has continued. The Mountaineers are 4-1 so far in 2014, including a win over a varsity side playing Division 1A in Wheeling Jesuit. Dan Oakley leads the backs playing in the centers. He is a standout both in offense and defense. Leading the tight five is junior Alex Clune. The loosehead prop plays well beyond his size. A question mark for West Virginia heading into the Northeast Regional is the status if its captain, flyhalf Kris Wilson. Wilson injured his thumb in the team’s win over Wheeling Jesuit, and has not played since. The Mountaineers are keeping their fingers crossed that he will be cleared for the round of 16 match against Princeton.

Princeton has had an up-and-down season up to this point after finishing 2-4 in the Ivy Rugby Conference. The Tigers did, however, win matches against Penn and Yale to reach the Ivy Rugby Wildcard Final. Princeton ended up losing to Brown in the final, 27-14, but still finds itself in the Northeast Regional.

Brown vs. University of San Diego
San Diego’s tremendous season has landed the team in its first National Playoff berth in program history. The Toreros began their 2014 campaign with a two-point loss on the road to Stanford. The team learned a lot from the hard-fought game and responded by blazing through its conference schedule. San Diego won all six of its conference matches, with Long Beach State being the only side to give the Toreros any difficulty – a 12-8 final score. After taking care of Santa Barbara City College quite handedly in the conference semifinals, San Diego lost its rematch against Long Beach State in the conference finals. Still, San Diego’s overall play in the spring earned the Toreros a spot in the DI-AA playoffs. To advance further, they will need continued stellar play from a group of seniors including Brendan Burton, Bryce Baker, Kuwait Vaeono, and captain Ryan Schott. Besides the core group of seniors that have shown great leadership, freshman fullback Alexander Rollins has been a breakout player for San Diego.

Similar to Princeton, Brown has struggled at times this season, but played its best rugby when it mattered most. In the Ivy Rugby Wildcard tournament, Brown took care of Cornell and Harvard before beating Princeton in the finals, 27-14, and claimed its spot in the National Playoffs. Outside if its Ivy Conference matches, Brown notched wins over Providence and had a successful tour of Bermuda, where it went 2-2.

Southeast Regional – University of Tennessee
Knoxville, Tenn.

Central Florida vs. Louisiana State
The reigning DI-AA National Champion, Central Florida, have had another spectacular season. After losing six starters and several key reserves due to graduation, the Knights again won the South Independent Rugby Conference, and in dominating fashion. Central Florida won its conference championship semifinals and finals by a combined score of 214-7. The Knights’ experience and overall talent should make Ken Linday’s team the favorite to win this year’s DI-AA National Championship.

LSU’s spot in the Southeast Regional came via an at-large bid following its second place finish in the Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference tournament. The Tigers overcame Florida 54-27 in the tournament’s semifinal before falling to fellow Southeast Regional participant South Carolina, 26-41. Senior captain Alex Creede has been important to the team’s success, and senior eight-man Will Middleton is a valuable asset in attack.

South Carolina vs. Georgia
Georgia has had an up-and-down season, but finished strong by winning its final three matches. Important wins for the Bulldogs this year include victories over Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and a 36-5 win over North Carolina. Austin West plays number eight and captains Georgia, and the team has strength up front with a couple of sophomore props in Nathan Driggers and Casey Davidson. In the backs, fullback Sam Trammel and outside center Jon Ross are dangerous in attack.

Carrying a perfect 15-0 record in the 15s code, South Carolina should be coming into the Southeast Regional with plenty of confidence. After a 6-0 Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference regular season, including wins over Florida and Kentucky, South Carolina disposed of Auburn, 41-5, to reach the Conference Championship match. In the Finals versus LSU, the Gamecocks again put 41 on the board on its way the SCRC crown. In the fall, South Carolina’s impressive day two at the USA Rugby College 7s National Championship led to hardware, as the Gamecocks return to Columbia, S.C., with the Shield Championship trophy. Captain Matt Berenato is a ferocious runner and try scorer and is complemented nicely by back-three players Colin McKeon and Tim Hamill. Academic All-American David Mysona is an outstanding prop. Behind him, flanker Dana Cocoran and number eight Mike Mahon are effective ball carriers in the loose.

Midwest Regional – Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio

Bowling Green vs. Iowa State
Bowling Green is no stranger to the National Playoffs, so it is no surprise the Falcons are in the hunt for a National Championship in 2014. Playing in the Mid American Conference, Bowling Green won both its conference’s 15s and sevens championships. Bowling Green has a 13-2 overall mark and recently went on a tour in England where the MAC champions went 2-1, including a win over a Saracens Amateur side. Initiating the Falcons offensive attack in the Midwest Regional will be freshman flyhalf Teddy Terezis. The Szente brothers are important pieces to the Bowling Green puzzle – Trent at center and Dane at prop. Mike Brown, a four-year starter, brings a lot of experience at hooker, and Ed Luther is a standout on defense.

This weekend will mark Iowa State’s first ever appearance in the DI-AA National Playoffs. The Cyclones are coming into the Midwest Regional with a 6-1 Heart of American Conference record, and an 11-2 overall record. Important victories for Iowa State this season came in a 39-12 win over a physical Kansas State side, and a 63-5 stomping of Truman State. Team captain Allen Tessmer, the only player Head Coach Malcolm Robertson will lose to graduation, is a terrific leader for the Cyclones.

Missouri vs. Middle Tennessee
Missouri did not drop a match on its way to winning the Heart of American Conference. A couple of the more impressive wins came against Iowa State and Arkansas. Senior forwards Ryan Scheidt and co-captain Joe McDonald are key components for the Tigers. The team’s other captain, fullback Shane Card, not only leads the team in tries, but is also Missouri’s best tackler. Senior Conor Strauss is a utility player, but reliable no matter where Head Coach Don Corwin puts him in. There are six freshmen currently starting for the Tigers, but the lack of experience in those players should not slow Missouri too much in Bowling Green.

Middle Tennessee had a solid season in the South Independent Rugby Conference. The Blue Raiders carried a 10-0 overall mark, and an 8-0 conference record heading into the SIRC playoffs. Florida State would beat Middle Tennessee, 51-32, in the SIRC Semifinals, but the Blue Raiders’ body of work leading up to the disappointed loss would be enough to land them an at-large seed in the Midwest Regional. A non-conference win over Tennessee, and a 29-24 victory over rival Kennesaw State have highlighted Middle Tennessee’s run thus far. Eight-man Josh Pentecost leads the forwards with his high work rate and physical style. In the backs, outside center Jamie Phillips is leading a young unit around him, while also serving as captain for the injured Jon Burchfield. Middle Tennessee played in the USA Rugby College 7s National Championship in the fall, as well. Although the trip to Greensboro, N.C., was not much of a success in terms of wins and losses, it gave the team an opportunity to play against some high-quality teams such as Saint Mary’s College.

West Regional – Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Stanford vs. Oregon
Oregon is in the final stages of what has been one of the program’s most successful seasons. Including the Northwest Collegiate Rugby Conference Playoffs and its non-conference win over Oregon State, the Ducks are 11-1-1 heading into the National Playoffs. Oregon has had a couple of close battles with University of Washington. In the first meeting between the two, the Ducks were able to pull off a one-point win. The second match was just as hotly contested and ended in a draw. Oregon’s undefeated streak finally came to an end when it lost to Central Washington in the NCRC Finals. Anton Matschek is a leader on the team and viscous tackler. Leading in the forwards is captain and eight-man Travis Cutler, while flyhalf Connor Crossley is playmaker with great vision.

Stanford entered its conference playoffs with a 7-3-1 record. Even more impressive is that the three losses came against quality non-conference teams in Santa Clara, Oregon State and Cal. The Cardinal’s draw was the result of a 17-17 tie against a Barbados select side. In the conference semifinals, Stanford advanced on the strength of a 43-10 effort against San Jose State. In the finals, the Cardinal denied Chico State’s bid to defend its 2013 conference championship, as Stanford doubled-up the Wildcats 28-14. Stanford’s front row of Uche Omegara, Cam Bailey and Jeremy Kim is a major strength.

Long Beach State vs. Arizona
The 2013-2014 season for Arizona is in tribute to Dave Sitton. Sitton, the legendary coach who was at the helm of Arizona’s rugby program for 35 years, sadly passed away this past fall. In his honor, Arizona has opened a new rugby stadium on campus and the team proudly wear’s Sitton’s initials on its kit. On the pitch, Head Coach Sean Duffy is in his first season at the school, and Arizona has won three consecutive matches to end the season against quality opposition in Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Oregon State. Captain and number eight Trevor Laue is the leader of this group, and brothers and wingers David and Anthony Spencer are dangerous on the edge. Competing in the PAC Conference, Arizona is extremely battled tested and capable of making a deep run.

Long Beach State will be playing in its fourth consecutive national round of 16 after winning the Southern California Collegiate Championship for its third year in a row. The 49ers have an overall record of 13-1, including a 7-1 conference record. In its conference championship match, Long Beach looked to exact revenge on the team that handed the 49ers its only loss of the season – University of San Diego – and Long Beach did exactly that. After a 12-8 loss to San Diego in the regular season, Long Beach smothered the Toreros 60-12 for the conference title, led by terrific performances from senior captains Nate Caukin and Greg Daniel. Head Coach Jason Reynolds’ team faces a tough draw in the West, but looks poised to make things difficult on Arizona and any other team it may face.

DI-AA’s Regional Playoffs kick off April 26 and concluded the following day. An overview of the DI-AA National Playoff bracket can be viewed here.