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Friday, October 16, 2015

Wheeling Jesuit At Kutztown Preview

By Ryan Trost

Can the Cardinals reach the peak, or is Kutztown still King of the mountain?

The stage is set for this week’s highlight match in Rugby East. Two of the nation’s top ranked teams square off on Saturday in Kutztown, Ohio when the Wheeling Jesuit Cardinals come a-calling on their conference rival, the KU Golden Bears. WJU’s annual shot at the longtime juggernaut has quickly become an important measuring stick for the program and to some degree, for the growth potential of college rugby programs across the country.

Wheeling rugby has only been in existence since the fall of 2012 and yet, here they are just three years later ranked by USA Rugby as the 10th best team in the nation and heralded by many to be the mighty Kutztown’s first legitimate test of the season. It is a meteoric rise, really and in some ways can be seen as a microcosm of what is happening in World Rugby. Similar to how Japan and others have closed the gap on traditional powers at the World Cup, upstart varsity programs like Wheeling are also on the verge of upsetting the apple cart in America’s college rugby hierarchy, and that is a good thing! As stated by Rugby East Conference Commissioner, Clarence Picard, “Perhaps their overall success as a program will encourage other schools to consider elevating the status of rugby on campus.” The more successful a program is, the more value they provide the athletic department. The more college programs there are helping top level athletes to be a part of the American Rugby system, the better USA Rugby’s talent pool will become. It’s a simplified explanation, but it is an important selling point. The better teams like Wheeling and Lindenwood do, the more likely it becomes that other schools will get on board.

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This particular rivalry is also an important part in Wheeling’s success so far. In their inaugural year, Wheeling did not play Kutztown. They have matched up with them in conference play every year since though, and reduced the scoring differential between them by 42 points in 2014. While clearly taking a blowout loss against Gregg Jones’ crew in 2013, the Cardinals have played both of the other two conference powerhouses more closely every chance they’ve had and their improvement against the Golden Bears in 2014 put many on notice. Their tight score lines against top echelon competition in meaningful conference matches since 2012 and their run into the playoffs last spring show the team’s growth is for real. This year especially, the Cardinals’ matches against PSU and Army were determined more by mental errors than by being overmatched. According to Head Coach, Tal Bayer, “Penalties vs Penn State is what ultimately cost us that game.” As for the team’s performance vs the Black Knights of Army, “That one was truly a ‘tale of two halves’,” he said. Bayer was happy with the team’s second half in that one, which saw the Cardinals run in 20 unanswered points before ill-discipline allowed Army to pull away at the end. “We’re there, we just need to maintain focus and discipline at important moments.”

With national ranking structures ever more consistently lodging the Cardinals inside the top ten, where KU has comfortably resided for a long-long time, one can see the respect that is growing across the nation for the 4th year program. Picard, part of the D1A ranking committee stated, “If Wheeling Jesuit pulls off the road win it might be considered an upset by some, but when you are playing tough matches week-in and week-out anything can happen… Their players match up with the best in the conference; they are athletic, physical, explosive and experienced. This should be an exciting match up.”

And yet, none of this can take anything away from Dr. Jones and his Golden Bears. The team has earned its intimidating reputation under his stalwart tutelage, alongside the quintessential strength and conditioning program installed by longtime assistant, Larry Chester. Though they began the 2015 fall season having lost no fewer than seven longtime starters, it cannot be overstated, the impact that Jones and Chester’s system has on the development of rugby athletes. For evidence, look no further than the plethora of current and former All-Americans and USA Eagles that have come through the KU system, a group that includes the USA’s starting scrumhalf vs South Africa in the 2015 World Cup, Niku Kruger. If any program should be expected to have keenly prepared athletes every week, this is certainly that program.

Still, questions have been raised. Army has already stormed out to a 5 – 0 start and looks nearly uncatchable in both national rankings and conference standings. With so many graduated seniors, are the Golden Bears reloading, or are they rebuilding? Kutztown’s own website sells it as loading, and they may make a very strong case for it. Though they have yet to play any of their true conference rivals this season, the team has dispatched with other nationally respected and rising programs in non-conference play. With a completely reconstituted half-back combination, KU opened the fall by defeating a very capable and nationally rising Stony Brook University, 56-17. The reigning Empire Conference champion Sea Wolves have otherwise gone undefeated in 2015.   In Kutztown’s Match Report from the day, they cited replacements of each and every graduated senior as very experienced and dangerous players. Some, like Jordan Ghyzel are returning from injury; some are transferring in from other top notch programs, like David Snead from Arkansas State. It’s hard to argue against them. Said Picard, “Kutztown is #7 for a reason. Until someone proves otherwise, KU is one of the teams to be reckoned with.”

Truly, it would not be Kutztown’s style to be nervous about this or any match, and in all honesty, Wheeling Jesuit has never beaten a top ten team, yet. The undeniable rise of the Cardinals though, with players like Cecil Rich and Peter Malcolm getting invites to the Chula Vista OTC, is inspirational for fans and other fledgling programs across the country. They represent the wide open possibilities of the American dream in Rugby.  Hard work, professionalism and a devotion to the game has helped the likes of front rowers Rich, Max Lum and Frank Rolf become key components in the program’s game plan Bayer emphasized the importance of the group in matching up with KU’s platform. “Kutztown will stick to a pattern; it’s their bread and butter. They are big and strong, they look to impose their will and do what they want to do. Front row will be a crucial platform. We will look to not be intimidated and to play what’s in front of us.” The tenacity and scrappiness of Bayer’s back row combination of Peter Malcolm and Andrew Waggoner were also cited by the coach as huge pieces to the team’s chances. Ultimately though, the Bayer’s game plan will look to balance that tenacity with maintained focus and (as ever) discipline.

No matter how you slice it, this game means something. For Kutztown to keep pace with Army they cannot lose this match, doing so will put them behind both Penn State and the Black Knights, with both still on the schedule to come. In addition, a loss to Wheeling will raise the volume of those questioning voices. For Wheeling, a win this weekend would be their biggest to date, without a doubt. It would symbolize the possibility for other programs to reach that summit as well. They are on the cusp of truly breaking into that top level of American college rugby. To do it, Wheeling will have to beat someone who is already there. This Saturday will be their best chance on the season against the mighty KU Golden Bears.

Good luck to both squads. I am sure a lot of ruggers will be looking forward to the results.

Ryan Trost
This is American Rugby Correspondent – Rugby East

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