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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Pressure Builds for the Contenders in Rugby East

By Ryan Trost

With only four weeks of conference play remaining, the playoff picture is just starting to come into focus for Rugby East powerhouses. While 4th ranked Army sits at 5 – 0 and has a virtual lock on a high playoff seed, the smoke has yet to settle for the next few contenders in the conference. Keeping in mind that USA Rugby’s playoff structure takes only the Top 12 nationally ranked teams across all of Division 1A and that almost half of those teams won’t play a single conference match until February, strong fall finishes are a matter of necessity for Rugby East squads. To stay in the memories of the ranking committee, teams like Wheeling Jesuit need to put a major league stamp on the field with solid and unrelenting play.

At the moment, 20th Ranked Iona College is holding command of 4th place in the conference standings, one game ahead of the 10th ranked Cardinals. WJU beat Iona 30 – 0 back in September though and have more games left to play than does Iona. So, to a large degree, Wheeling appears to be in control of its own destiny. That #10 ranking is almost sure to change though, when the spring seasons begin in earnest out west. First year Head Coach Tal Bayer’s team will need to some thunder in its final three tests, if they want to hold off the likes of Cal Poly, Arizona and SDSU. Currently ranked 11th, 14th and 15th respectively, those teams and others will be vying for the right to move up in the standings when the eyes of the ranking committee are keenly focused on them just ahead of the playoff tournament. To stay on the radar, Wheeling Jesuit needs to make itself very memorable to the committee.

Take the jump to read more.

As it so happens, next up for the Cardinals is the ever powerful Kutztown State this Saturday. As important as impressive score lines will be against West Virginia and University at Buffalo in the weeks after that, a very tightly contested game or an upset against the Gregg Jones’ Golden Bears is really what the Cardinals want and need.

That upset might seem like more of a longshot now than it did at the start of the fall campaign. Heralded as a rebuilding year for Jones, 2015 began with a wave of first time starters in key positions throughout the Kutztown squad. Rolling victories over Stony Brook, Delaware, Buffalo and St. Bonaventure to start the season had fans feeling confident again early on. Last week’s win over a very feisty and hungry Iona squad may have been just the tune up this Jones’ team needed heading into the crux of its season. Either that, or it was an alert to the rest of the conference that Iona has arrived. These final four matches for KU are without a doubt their most difficult stretch of the season, so really, now is when we find out how much rebuilding still needs to be done, if any.

That being said, as the only team with more than three conference matches left to play Kutztown is, in all likelihood, the only team in Rugby East with a legitimate shot at dethroning Army at the top of the conference. To do so, they will almost certainly have to go undefeated on the year. A tall order for anyone in this very well stacked conference. In succession they will be facing Wheeling, Army (on KU’s homecoming day), West Virginia and finally Penn State. Only WVU is ranked lower than 10th nationally. The path is known for Kutztown, but is it clear? There is a lot left to be said in this heavyweight division.

Beyond the playoff implications laid before WJU and the respect factor facing KU, Iona has made stellar progress on the year, but will most likely not be in the running for a national playoff spot. To get into a playoff spot, Bruce McLane’s rising stars would have to leap frog eight teams in the D1A national rankings. Only two matches remain for the Gaels and those are against the top two conference teams at this time. It’s the Black Knights of Army this week and after a bye, the sleeping giant that is Penn State on Oct. 30th. Likelihoods are of course not actual final results though, are they? As many USA Super League teams of the early 2000’s learned the hard way, when McLane is at the helm of a rugby team, that team will be tough to beat and upsets are always a possibility.

Avoiding an upset is something Penn State may be especially keen on doing when it picks up conference play again against Iona in two and a half weeks. Both teams will be well rested coming off of byes, so there will be no excuses. Judging from Iona’s fighting spirit against KU last week, their Halloween weekend prime-time clash with the Lions figures to be a heck of an affair, at the very least. Having already lost to AIC and Army, the Nittany Lions will be under the microscope the rest of the way this season. Blake Burdette seems to have righted the ship, but in true competitive fashion there are no easy games left in-conference for this Penn State team. Kutztown vs Penn State on November 7th will close league play for Rugby East in epic fashion. Both teams are separated by only one spot in the national rankings currently and both sides fan bases fully expect them to be a major part of the College Championships in May, 2016.

As always with American Rugby, there is a lot of movement that can be hard to track. Is Wheeling deserving of a #10 ranking, or are they actually already better than Kutztown as some others in the press have them ranked? Can they, KU and Penn State afford to drop another match at all with so many western and southern D1A teams having their entire league seasons left to play, in the start of 2016? For Rugby East teams everything is on the line from here on out and the game to watch this week is without a doubt Wheeling at Kutztown.

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