Move to DI has not slowed Rocky Gorge’s impressive run

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Senior club teams moving up from one division to the next typically require a season or two to adjust to the higher level of competition. However, that has not been the case for Rocky Gorge Rugby Club.

After winning Division II National Championships in 2012 and 2014, and claiming yet another Mid-Atlantic Conference DII Championship last spring, the men of Rocky Gorge felt it was time to challenge themselves by moving up to Mid-Atlantic DI.

"Success isn't new to Rocky Gorge," said head coach and flanker Nick DiMichele. "Since 2011, we have put together six consecutive winning seasons. We strive to be better than we were the year before."

A quick glance at Rocky Gorge's 2015-16 record shows the team is indeed better than it was year season ago. The team holds a 9-0 conference record, and sits atop of the MAC standings at 44 points - 13 points ahead of second-place Schuylkill River Exiles.

Although Gorge's undefeated mark has included a plus-372 scoring margin, the club from Laurel, Md., which draws a majority of its players from nearby collegiate programs such as Salisbury, Towson, University of Maryland, and University of Maryland - Baltimore County, acknowledges the season has not necessarily been a walk in the park.

"Leading the division isn't surprising," DiMichele said. "Being undefeated, averaging almost 50 points a game, and five shutouts in nine games is surprising.

"Regardless of what the scoreboard says, it has not been an easy road."

Making the road more difficult than a 9-0 record would suggest has been the recent season-ending injuries to a couple of key players. Loose head prop Bryan Perez and outside center Ethan Reese are done for the season. Additionally, several nagging injuries throughout the roster, especially in the midfield and back three, have made for consistent shuffling to the first XV.

Fortunately, a few Rocky Gorge members have raised their individual performances to new heights. Following a season in which he scored a dozen tries, captain and No. 8 Josh Brown continues to lead from the front and be one of Gorge's best players. In the backs, scrum half Nick Sylor already has twice as many tries as he dotted down last year, and does an incredible job of linking phases between the forwards and backs.

Then there is Ben Cima. The AIG Men's Junior All-American fly half has been tabbed by many as a future Eagle, and has given a tremendous boost to Mid-Atlantic's best side.

"He's the type of player that makes everyone better - one through 15," DiMichele said of Cima. "It's tough playing against a 10 like Ben. If you give him an inch he will drop the ball over your head, if you get a penalty close to the 50-meter line he is going to take points."

The 20-year old is not afraid to mix it up in the trenches with his much older counterparts, as well.

"He doesn't shy away from contact," complimented DiMichele. "In fact, he has a knack for poaching - which a lot of teams are finding out the hard way."

Rocky Gorge still has five regular season matches remaining on its schedule. With such a commanding lead in the conference the team has already altered its club goals from the fall.

"In September, our goal was to be in the top four and advance to the MAC Playoffs," DiMichele said. "Our current goal is to clinch the No. 1 seed and be the 2016 MAC Champions."

It is a safe bet Rocky Gorge will be in position to host a May 7 MAC Semifinal. If the team wins on that day, it will play for a conference championship the following weekend in Wilmington, Del. Beyond the MAC Playoffs, competition is sure to increase dramatically at the national stage, where Mid-Atlantic squads have not fared too well. In fact, no team representing the MAC has reached a Men's DI National Semifinal since Charlotte Rugby Club, which no longer plays in the conference, back in 2005.

"The Mid-Atlantic has not performed well at the national stage in a long time," acknowledged DiMechele. "Rocky Gorge is looking to change that, and build on our DI reputation."

This week, Rocky Gorge completes its home-and-away with the Baltimore-Chesapeake Brumbies. Just a week after blanking the Brumbies, 44-0, in Baltimore, Gorge will host the MAC's fourth-place team April 2.