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Friday, November 13, 2015

ACRC Primer: Iona vs. Stony Brook in Rugby East-Empire Clash

Jimmy Sheridan vs USMMA, 10-25-15 (photo credit: Margaret McPartland Placilla)

By Ryan Trost

As 22 of the best teams in the eastern U.S. prepare for the 2015 ACRC Bowl Series next week, some are taking this weekend as an opportunity to prime themselves with one more cross-conference clash. Of those match-ups, one of the most intriguing is Iona vs. Stony Brook. Former Empire conference rivals in 2011 with coaches who’ve met in head to head competition at senior men’s levels as well, there is a familiarity here that doesn’t always exist between out of conference foes. A measuring stick for both dynamic teams and their home conferences, this is a match that should be exciting from the start.

The Stony Brook Sea Wolves are coming off of a disappointing conference title game loss, but Head Coach, Jerry Miro said his team’s attitude has been very positive and that they have had a great week of training. “Our boys are very much looking forward to it. We want to give them a great game,” he said. “They are top 4 in Rugby East, deservingly. They’ve separated themselves… this should be a great barometer for us on one side, but we want to represent Empire as well.” Miro went on to remind us that the Sea Wolves played Kutztown early in the year and they are hoping this match against the Gaels highlights the improvements being made throughout the season within the Empire conference as a whole.

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Those improvements are exactly what Bruce McLane is hoping his young roster is ready for. “Stony Brook is too much of a challenge to look past it, which kind of happened against PSU. That hubris hurt us. We’ve got to guard against that with Stony Brook or we’re in for a rude awakening.” Especially considering that the Gaels are down a few veterans (including two captains from earlier in the fall) after a battering Rugby East season, McLane has some reason to be concerned.

Stony Brook is rolling into the week with a very healthy leadership group, known for asserting a physical brand of rugby. It is a team that can smother you in the pack, and can come at pace in the backline. For a Division 1-AA team, the group is pretty well loaded with national team aspirants in its first xv… Captain Jimmy Sheridan can play lock and front row (and often has in the same game), and is touted by coach Miro as someone who should be getting a look from the USA 15’s Selects. Eight-man Phil Salter, who has earned player of the week honors multiple times, along with 2014-15 All-American, Shane Wend at Inside Center and Bryan Michel at Fullback are all members of the Northeast region’s National Development Academy program during the summer. 

Conversely, Iona has players who should be on development academy radars as well, and who are keys to Iona’s mobile game. Coach McLane points directly to Center Mike Scarcella in the backline, along with Tyler Ringwood at Prop, Evan Staikos at Lock and Mike Marino in the back row as the cogs that have helped the Gael’s engines hum all season. 

As for his keys to this particular game, McLane is looking for a staunch defensive effort with high tackle counts and fast aggressive work in the breakdowns. He expects his new captain John Petteruti to lead by example in this area. “Stony Brook, under Jerry Miro will play with power, pace and skill. They’ll bend but not break in defense and they won’t beat themselves,” he said. “We’ll need quick ball and that means getting there fast, before Stony Brook has big bodies over our ball.” Iona expects to have to work hard to get wide. To help, McLane wants to create one-on-one situations by dominating the contact area and quickly being ready for the next phase. On defense, McLane pointed to shutting down the edges with his forwards putting a shoulder into it and to bottling up Salter and Wend, “or we’ll be in for a very long day,” he said.
As for his team’s keys to success this weekend, Miro also pointed to a need for ball security and physical fitness to keep up with the depth Iona has built since joining Rugby East. “To play in that division, if you’re not three deep and interchangeable, you’re going to be in trouble.”  We have heard it discussed many times this autumn; Rugby East prides itself on being one of the most competitive conferences nationwide. McLane reiterated the sentiment again this week, “We want to show that 4th in our conference is better than the top teams in other conferences, and we want to do it in a sound manner.” 

If any D1-AA conference should be seen as an incubator for teams that might be able to make a jump to 1-A though, certainly Empire is in that conversation. The teams that have remained in Empire, like Stony Brook and Syracuse pride themselves on being able counterparts to the teams in Rugby East. They may not have the funding to compete week in and week out, but on any given Saturday, you have to think a team like Stony Brook has its chances, even against a top 20 team one division up. Said McLane, “Jerry Miro is one of the best coaches in the northeast and has been for at least a decade. We are really under the pump for the next two weeks… I’m working hard to get our young kids to understand that.”

Sounds like McLane has learned his lessons from facing Miro’s Long Island Rugby Club, while he was at NYAC. It will be an important statement game from his Gaels on Saturday, to prove if they have too. After Stony, it’s Delaware in the ACRC, a team planning on joining Rugby East anew in 2016.

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