MCRC Rolls, Women Falter at Bowdoin

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MCRC Rolls, Women Falter at Bowdoin

By Owen Teach

With only six conference games on its regular season schedule, the Middlebury College Rugby Club (MCRC) knew that an automatic berth into November’s DI-AA National Tournament – granted to the first-place finisher in the East Coast Rugby Conference (ECRC) – would likely be determined by a series of competitive games early in the year. After downing the University of Massachusetts in week one, MCRC hosted an up-and-coming program in American International College (AIC) this past Saturday, Sept. 21, in a pivotal early season clash. Despite battling blustery winds in the opening half, MCRC opened up the game in the second frame to cruise to a comfortable 37-12 victory, thereby taking sole possession of first place in the ECRC standings with four games remaining.

AIC turned many heads in the rugby world after upsetting Northeastern in its first match, and as one of the only DI-AA programs in the country with varsity status, it had MCRC’s full attention as it prepared for the contest.

“We did a lot of extra conditioning and a lot of contact because we knew that they were going to be a big physical team,” Griffin Jones ’16, flanker, said. “As much as it was a high intensity match, we tried not to get too panicked. I think it paid off at the game – we were all in good shape. We just played a pretty basic kicking game and tried to control the field because they very much rely on big plays – big hits and long runs.”

Forwards Coach Ben Wells also noted that AIC was on his radar.

“[It is] a rapidly improving program, and [its] win over Northeastern last week certainly sent a message,” Wells said. “However, we have to focus on ourselves during the week, and we did just that.”

One thing MCRC could not control was the weather on Saturday, as heavy winds that battered the rugby pitch had a large impact on the run of play. Despite electing to play into the wind in the first half to gain an advantage in the second, the difficult weather put a damper on the team’s first half strategy.

“It was tough kicking into the wind in the first half, which was tough because coming in we definitely wanted to kick a lot,” Jones said. “We decided that we wanted to kick a lot for position and try and pin them back into their own half, but the wind made that a challenge in the first half. The ball hung up in the air and we couldn’t clear it, which gave their guys a chance to get under it.”

Wells also addressed the weather as an obstacle to the team’s play.

“Early in the first half we tried to kick our way out of our end a few times and the wind just absolutely knocked down the ball, so we adjusted to more ball-in-hand to gain territory,” Wells said.

This “ball-in-hand” in approach was facilitated in large part by the club’s dominant front line, which put in another bruising performance against AIC.

“We’re lucky to have some incredibly talented forwards right now, and they’ve all been playing together for at least a year or two, so they’re really coming together,” Wells said. “It’s a huge lift for our whole side when we dominate scrum after scrum, and it can also be really demoralizing for the other team. We are lucky to have really intense competition for spots, as there is a whole slate of guys behind this starting front eight that is fighting hard to crack the line-up. We have guys who played in the National Championships last spring who didn’t even make the bench this past week. That’s how much internal competition we have right now.”

Besides the front line, Jones also pointed to a slew of first-year players making an impact early in their MCRC careers. More than that, however, the arrival of players to MCRC with prior rugby experience has helped solidify the program’s direction.

“It’s definitely good knowing that we can count on the younger guys, namely Julien Miller ’17 and Max deJong ’17 to fill into skill positions during big pressure games like AIC,” Jones said. “Across the board, especially with my class and the class below me, the club is beginning to be built with players that have rugby experience before college. It’s definitely nice to have a young core of players with extensive experience.”

The new crop of players differs from the team’s two captains, Ben Stasiuk ’13.5 and Allan Stafford ’13.5, who had never played rugby before college.

At the game’s final whistle, Jones, Stasiuk, Stafford and Laird Silsby ’15 recorded tries, while Jake Feury ’16 continued his scoring spree by leading MCRC with 17 points, including one try and three penalty kicks.

Silsby also distinguished himself with stellar play on Saturday, drawing extensive praise from both Jones and Wells.

“Silsby is off to an unbelievable start,” Wells said. “He’s doing absolutely everything and he’s doing it faster and better than most of us have seen here at Middlebury. He’s an incredible athlete and is one of the hardest working and fittest guys of the team and has really developed as a complete rugby player. It’s been really fun to watch him play rugby this year.”

Jones also noted that Silsby has been a player who really emerged this year. He said that Silsby was a dominant leader last year, but brought his game to a whole new level this year, especially at AIC where he played the best Jones had ever seen him play.

On Saturday, Sept. 28, MCRC plays an away contest at Northeastern, the 2011 conference champion and perennial challenger to the Panthers.

Northeastern is a part of the three-way bottleneck tie for second in the conference standings, as the Panthers have eight points to Northeastern’s four.

“I think that if we beat Northeastern, which we can, that going into the bye week with three very big wins is what we need to do,” Jones said. “Pretty much every game is a playoff game and we cannot afford to lose.”

While the men fared well against a conference foe, the Middlebury College Women’s Rugby Club (MCWRC) faltered in its opening conference tilt against Bowdoin in a rematch of last season’s New England Small College Rugby Conference (NESCRC) title game. The Panthers, while only down 10-5 at the half, were unable to overcome inexperience and some nerves, falling 25-5 at the hands of the Polar Bears.

Molly Benedetto ’14 said a lack of game experience hurt MCWRC on Saturday.

“After 11 [graduating] seniors, rookies and vets alike have really had to step up,” Benedetto said. “Our starting line-up for this weekend included seven rookies, two of which were playing in their first game ever. Three other rookies also joined us as substitutes and made their first appearances on the field.”

According to Benedetto, going down 10-0 in the game’s first 30 minutes may have been a result of this inexperience.

“In the first half of the first half, we were messy and panicked, not controlling the ball,” she said. “After Bowdoin scored their second try, we calmed down and controlled the tempo, forcing Bowdoin to play our game.”

MCWRC was further hurt in the second half after fly half Sarah Kravitz ’16 sustained a leg injury early into the frame, meaning the team had to further adjust its line-up. Bowdoin pulled away with 15 second half points while the Panthers were held off the scoreboard.

The club returns to action next week with the first home game of the season against Williams on Saturday.

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MCRC Rolls, Women Falter at Bowdoin