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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Iona’s Shock Win Over Army: Where Did It Come From And Is It A Good Omen?

By Ryan Trost

By now the news has spread far and wide. The Previously 21st ranked Iona College Gaels were upset winners last week over the #4 ranked, undefeated Black Knights of Army, 43 – 26. As pointed out by Wheeling Jesuit Head Coach, Tal Bayer though, “It’s not so much that Iona got the win, it’s by how much.” He has a point. We’ve seen it coming. Over the course of the past two years Iona has reigned in the traditional powers, while expanding the gap between themselves and other traditionally smaller programs. However, for most programs on the rise, the trend of improvement usually continues more gradually. Dismantling a major conference power for the first time, by nearly 20 is just not the norm. Normal expectation is for the up and comer to scrape by for that first win, and then settle into a pattern of closely fought, win-some, lose-some history.

So, maybe the timing and depth of the Iona’s win is a surprise. After losing to Kutztown the week prior, it was easy to think in likelihoods. Probability suggested that the Gaels had already peaked in blowout wins over Buffalo and West Virginia. As we said last week though, likelihoods aren’t actualities and this is a Bruce McLane team, after all. More of us should have seen it coming, maybe.

Take the jump to read more.

Considering the pedigree of the coaching, the professionalism with which the programs are being built and their commitment to encouraging top ranked competition within the conference, all of Rugby East seems hell bent and bound for conference parity and Iona is a big part of that. Conference Commissioner, Clarence Picard said it best last week, “As more schools invest in the sport, we will see the apple cart upset. With programs (like these) challenging the traditional powers, it’s just a matter of time.”

All of this considered, the lead up to Iona vs. Army had the characteristics of a “Trap” game for the cadets. Riding high on its talent margin, the West Point team had not lost since last spring and was making it look easy. Maintaining control of the match and the scoreboard had been the Black Knights’ M.O. throughout the fall. In fact, before Saturday, Army had only trailed an opponent for a total of five minutes on the entire season (1st half vs Penn State on Oct. 2nd). They had already handled the Nittany Lions and Wheeling Jesuit, while the opponent they would be facing after Iona, Kutztown, was ranked only a few spots behind them nationally and was also going into the weekend with an unblemished record. Army Head Coach, Matt Sherman agreed with the trap scenario playing a role. He also pointed out that his team may not have been quite as dialed-in as it appeared over the season. “We were winning games, but we have had some repetitive mistakes… and finally some of those mistakes burned us.”

In the meantime, Iona, with one of the best men’s rugby coaches in the country at any level have been improving by leaps and bounds every week for more than a year. The Gaels only lost to Army by seven points last season, and let Kutztown off the hook two weeks ago by only eight. In 2015, Iona has blown out the teams they should beat, and have been within reach against all of the teams they were not expected to beat. Those losses belie the momentum that McLane has been building at the school since taking the helm in February of 2014. A deeper look at the Iona program reveals some interesting reasons why their rise to ascendency has (apparently) happened so quickly.

When McLane took the Iona job, he brought with him a large and experienced coaching staff. Assistants and specialization coaches were in place, ready to hit the ground with him from day one. Their long term project plan and their goals were clear and they committed to building not just a good team, but an outstanding program. The impact this (now) ten person coaching staff has had on the players and the program itself is significant. “My dream was to fill the stadium, have the games live streamed, use the Pipe Band to charge the crowd, announce the teams, play the anthem at the start of every match,” he said. “We concentrated on the off-field set up, because, for the players, I wanted it to matter. A primary motivator for them to work their asses off is to have ‘purpose’.” After speaking with McLane for a few minutes, it becomes very evident what kind of coach he is, and why he is successful no matter the level. He understands not only the game, but also how important all of the support structures are as well. He has studied the pursuit of excellence (Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy), is committed to applying it and is teaching it to his players as well as the program staffs surrounding him. “All that off the field stuff,” he continued. “It galvanizes the students.” When the players’ peers care about the team’s success, it gives purpose and purpose motivates the players’ commitment to mastery.

That same unrelenting commitment to the cause is a hallmark of many McLane led rugby teams. The 100% buy-in that he gets from his players creates a rhythm on the pitch. An aggressive and disruptive defense puts repeated pressure on key positions of the opponent’s lines. Solid decision makers, often in the back three, reset the transition from defense to offense. The group maintains channel composure and is constant in pressing the gain line. With an easy to translate positional philosophy and strong leadership, Iona can afford to play confrontational defense, despite often being undersized by Division 1-A standards.

As some of McLane’s old New York Athletic Club players have said, watching Iona play is similar to watching their NYAC teams on a miniature scale. So, is that what put them over against Army? The holistic program simply all came together at the right time? “Army is really good, man. They made some mistakes that we capitalized on; we got a little bit lucky… and we matched up well in some key one on ones,” said McLane.  The ever balanced head coach isn’t guaranteeing that his team has fully arrived in the upper echelon of the nation’s programs, but he understands how close they are. “To the extent we can back it up against Penn State… if we can hold the upper hand, regardless of the result, then we’re in that conversation.” McLane see’s the key to the PSU match on Oct. 30th revolving around his gang’s ability to handle the essentials in loose play. “Their scrummaging is outstanding (and) their lineout, but the key is, ‘Can we knock them down and disrupt their French pattern?’ If you don’t step up and make your tackles they can really pump you all day long.” It’s still almost two weeks off, but McLane is already very clear on the pace, the channels and the positions his team will have to mark for disruption against their next big time opponent.

Well prepared early on. That is Bruce McLane, and now it is Iona. Be glad to start getting used to it in Rugby East. More games at higher levels is good for all of us, players, coaches, fans and press.

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