MCRC Hosts Penn State in National Semifinals

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MCRC Hosts Penn State in National Semifinals

David vs. Goliath: With a spot in the national championship game on the line, MCRC will host Penn State, the largest university in the country, on Saturday. (Campus/Maddie Dai)

David vs. Goliath: With a spot in the national championship game on the line, MCRC will host Penn State, the largest university in the country, on Saturday. (Campus/Maddie Dai)

David vs. Goliath: With a spot in the national championship game on the line, MCRC will host Penn State, the largest university in the country, on Saturday. (Campus/Maddie Dai)

David vs. Goliath: With a spot in the national championship game on the line, MCRC will host Penn State, the largest university in the country, on Saturday. (Campus/Maddie Dai)

By Owen Teach

Fresh off a two-weekend bye period following its East Coast Rugby Conference (ECRC) regular season title, the Middlebury College Rugby Club (MCRC) roared to a 57-3 demolition of Empire Conference champion Stony Brook on Saturday, Nov. 16 in the opening round of the American Collegiate Rugby Championship Division I playoffs. The win sets up MCRC to host perennial Division I powerhouse Penn State University in a national semifinal this Saturday, Nov. 23 in what is undoubtedly a watershed moment in the history of the Club.

MCRC’s victory over Stony Brook also marks the first postseason game that Middlebury has won at the Division I level since moving up from Division II three years ago, with the lopsided result being a source of pride for head coach John Phillips. He believed that his team had been overlooked all season and that Saturday sent shockwaves through the rugby world.

“I just knew by watching game tape of Stony Brook that they didn’t know who they were facing when they got us,” Phillips said. “I thought that we could beat them by 30 points, but I never imagined a 57-3 win. That is the most satisfying win that I have ever had. I have won a National Championship and we beat Northeastern last year, but I have never seen the boys so excited after a game. We sent a message. Experts wrote us off, but I just let the team do the talking. It was magnificent. I said to the boys before the game ‘go for the jugular.’ Afterwards I said, ‘I told you to go for the jugular, but you ripped their throats out!’”

Assistant coach Ben Wells also pointed to the fact that the win proved that the infant ECRC, a conference only in its third year of existence, is on the rise.

“Two years ago Northeastern was the ECRC champ and they lost in the first round to Stony Brook. Last year we won the league and were knocked out by St. Bonaventure, also the Empire champions,” said Wells. “So, our fledgling conference had not done that well collectively on the national stage, but we really felt like we were on a different level this year. We wanted to travel down there and prove it.”

A large reason behind the impressive score line at Stony Brook was the impressive play of MCRC’s forward pack, an area in which the club has enjoyed dominance all year long. Team points leader and inside center Jake Feury ’16 mentioned the addition of forwards’ coach Junior Tuiqere as a major reason for the elevated level of front pack play this year.

“The forward pack has been working with Junior this year and he’s been focusing mostly on scrummaging and line-outs,” Feury said. “As a result, our forwards have dominated every team we’ve played in the scrum and I think they stole about 90 percent of Stony Brook’s scrums. Every play they’d go out there and blow the other team over. It’s a combination of the techniques they’ve been learning from coach and their brute strength that made a huge impact on the game.”

The team also played on Saturday without standout Laird Silsby ’15 due to an elbow injury, a player whom Phillips and Wells characterized as the MVP of the league. Silsby’s status for this weekend’s game remains questionable, but the team is hoping he can suit up for Penn State from injury.

“We were really upset when we found that Laird couldn’t play, as he’s been a huge asset to our team all year and he’s worked really hard to get this team where it’s at,” Feury said. “We are really excited at the fact that he might be able to come back this weekend, but we are fully confident in our roster and we are fully confident in every player we have stepping out on the field.”

Wells echoed Feury’s words, saying that the team will be ready either way.

“One thing we always talk about as coaches is ‘squad,’” Wells said. “We are a club of 45 kids coming out to practice regularly throughout the fall and 20 more on campus supporting it. When you hold the other team out of the try zone and to only three points in a national quarterfinal – it takes the whole team to do that.”

Turning the attention to this coming Saturday’s match up with Penn State, a palpable excitement is evident amongst MCRC coaches and players with the Nittany Lions coming to town.

“I mean this is huge. It’s bigger than big. It’s Penn State coming to Middlebury College – a Division I program playing a Division III school. This game is bigger than the national championships that we won in 2007 and 2009,” Phillips said. “I am praying for snow. I think that’ll even the field out.”
Wells also struggled to put the game in perspective.

“It puts us in another echelon of college rugby. It would be like Middlebury football hosting Penn State – it’s a reasonably comparable comparison and it’s totally absurd. It almost doesn’t even compute,” he said. “If you had told me even three years ago that we’d be hosting Penn State in a national semifinal, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Phillips pointed to mental preparation as the most important factor this week for his side.

“If we get our mental preparation on track we’ll be alright. Physically we are there, but mentally it’s like, ‘we’re playing Penn State.’ That’s a huge mental block,” he said. “This is like Rocky. The boys have to believe they can do this. If they believe it, we have a fighting chance.”

Win or lose on Saturday, however, this MCRC season has helped catapult the club into the national spotlight. With its move to Division I three years ago criticized for being foolhardy, Wells asserts the trajectory of the club is in good shape.

“The way that we dismantled Stony Brook and now that we have Penn State coming to us, it puts us in the conversation of the elite in the country,” he said.

Feury echoed Wells’ remarks.

“The MCRC is extremely excited and proud to be able to host this semifinal game, especially against a team of Penn State’s caliber,” Feury said. “We have never faced a team in 15s of this level before, and this will be a great test for us as a program. If we want to keep moving up, getting national exposure and promoting Middlebury as an elite program, we need to keep going out there against the best teams.”

In another of the contest’s intriguing storylines, Fuery’s brother Blaze enjoyed a stellar campaign for the visiting Penn State side, but tore his ACL three weeks ago and thus will be relegated to the sidelines.

“He’ll be out there doing what he can – he’s the captain of the team so his leadership will still be shown,” Feury said. “He will be doing everything he can from the sidelines and we hope him a speedy recovery.”

The match kicks off at 1 p.m. on the rugby pitch. On the other side of the playoff bracket, Bowling Green coming off a bye faces Kutztown (83-17 winners over West Virginia.) Penn State downed Clemson in a 27-26 thriller on the road last Saturday.

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