Blacks return to Men’s DI National Championship to face surging Mystic River

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The Austin Blacks are one game away from completing a 12-month return journey to Infinity Park and winning the Men's Division I National Championship that escaped them by just five points a year ago. This time around, the Blacks face the victor from the eastern Club Playoffs, Mystic River, Saturday, June 4, at 7 p.m. MT on The Rugby Channel.

Last year's 44-39 defeat at the hands of New York Athletic Club was Austin's first appearance in a National Championship Final since 2007, making last year's DI title game a first for nearly everyone involved.

"Last year we didn't really know what to expect," said Blacks Head Coach Tane Jericevich. "It was our first Final with this group of players. Although we lost last year, we came close and I think it's given us a lot of belief that we can get the job done this year."

The 2015 Club Championship Final produced such a dramatic and exciting affair, it is easy to forget that Austin's 2016 opponent, Mystic River, fell to NYAC by just six points two weeks earlier in the National Semifinal. Following its best finish in 15s since a 1991-92 season that saw Mystic River finish the year as the National runner-up, the team surprised many by reaching the Cup Semifinals of the 2015 Club 7s National Championships.

During the 2015-16 season, the club has proven itself to be among the East Coat's elite squads, splitting home-and-away fixtures with perennial powers Old Blue and NYAC before getting the best of Old Blue a second time in the National Semifinals.

"All of these matches were won by the home side this year, which tells you just how tight our competition was," explained Mystic River Head Coach Josh Smith.

"We have a lot of respect for Old Blue as a club and how they operate. Anytime we draw them it brings an added spark to our guys, as we know we need to be at our best to come away with the win. Bragging rights are always nice, too."

Finally out of the shadow of its Atlantic North rivals, Mystic River is not concerned if the team is perceived as underdogs against a Blacks outfit that holds a 17-1 record heading into the June 4 Final.

"We don't feed too much into the underdog role," said Smith. "I feel like we have been playing at a pretty solid level for the last year and a half. Results don't lie, so we are more focused on getting the job done rather than worrying about predictions or rankings."

Given the talent in Mystic River's back row, it is little surprise the team from Massachusetts is not concerned with outside perceptions. Jon Kokinda, Sean Rafferty, and Joe Shurmaitis make up the trio of loose forwards that raise Mystic River's standard of play with relentless work rate around the park. The team's other strength rests in the midfield, where centers Evin O'Driscoll and Alatasi Tupou can impact games with both speed and strength.

Slowing down Mystic River's dynamic center combination will be especially tough for an Austin side that will be without its first-choice inside center - Pat Sullivan. The former AIG Men's Collegiate All-American's impressive size and skill set has been missing from the Blacks' lineup since late April due to a knee injury. Fortunately for Austin, the team still has stalwarts Levi Kereti and Matt Redzavich patrolling the back line, along with former Newcastle Falcon fly half Stephen Jones.

The loss of Sullivan has been just one of many bitter pills the Blacks have been forced to swallow this season. The launch of PRO Rugby poached two-thirds of Austin's front row, as well as Sullivan's college teammate and reliable full back Zac Mizell. The loss of a few of the Blacks' best players forced the team to make adjustments mid-season. In return, the team's form slipped for several weeks before finding its footing thanks to DII and DIII players making impacts to Austin's top side.

"It took us a month or two to regroup and bring some new guys on who were playing lower divisions," said Jericevich. "But those guys stepped up and we're stronger for it now."

Included in the group of players that Jericevich says have "given the team a new heartbeat" is Antonio Winn. The former Indiana University standout, who was playing on Austin's DIII team at the beginning of the season, has slotted in nicely at full back for the departed Mizell.

Hooker John Clery was no stranger to Austin's starting lineup, but has been massively important to holding the front row together after the loss of Chris Baumann and Brendan Rams to PRO Rugby's Denver franchise.

Mystic River is plenty aware of the Blacks' talented roster, but also apprehensive over the fact that its opposition will be fueled by last year's Finals defeat.

"Austin is a quality club that looks to be well-drilled and returning from a tough loss in the Finals last year to NYAC," Smith said. "No doubt they will be ready to change that result."

Keeping true to form, the Blacks are spending more time concerning themselves with their own strengths and structures, but have admittedly taken a glance of Saturday night's National Championship opponent.

"They are quite well balanced," described Jericevich. "They have a big pack, a set piece that is quite good, and they're a big, physical team. We're going to have to stay on top of them, otherwise we'll be in for a long, hard game."

The 2016 Men's Division I National Championship Final between the Austin Blacks and Mystic River will be competed on the first day of the June 4-5 USA Rugby Club Championships at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo. The Men's DI Final is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. MT, following the Women's DII and Women's DI National Championship games.

For a schedule of the entire 2016 USA Rugby Club Championships, visit USA Rugby's Club Championships page.