After completing a successful campaign this past fall, the Middlebury College Rugby Club (MCRC) will travel to Pittsburgh, Pa. this coming Saturday and Sunday, April 27 and 28, to compete in the Division 1-AA Rugby National Tournament.
By virtue its 6-1 record en route to capturing the East Coast Rugby Conference (ECRC) championship in the autumn, MCRC received an automatic bid into the 16-team tournament slated to begin this weekend at four sites around the country. The Panthers will square off against St. Bonaventure, the Empire conference champion, in the Round of 16 on Saturday. With a win, the following day the team would face either Dartmouth or the University of Pittsburgh in the tournament quarterfinals.
The trip marks MCRC’s first appearance in the tournament at the Division I level, as the squad only recently made the leap upwards from Division II in the fall of 2011. After falling short of national qualification in ECRC competition that fall, however, the team swept through competition this past autumn (dropping only a close contest to Boston College) to secure its spot in the top-flight tournament.
For Allan Stafford ’13.5, a veteran from the team’s runs in the Division II tournaments in the spring of 2010 and 2011, the new level of competition has not changed the team’s outlook on their chances in Pittsburgh.
“We have a pretty new team from the team that lost in the national championship game against Wisconsin-Whitewater my sophomore year,” said Stafford. “The older kids are trying to share their experiences with the younger ones. Given that it’s Division I, we expect the competition to be a lot tougher, as it has been all year. However, we have not changed our preparation in any way before we go down there.”
Teammate and Co-captain Ben Stasiuk ’13.5 touched on the differences in competition level in D1.
“Working as a unit and not relying on individuals is very important when playing high-quality teams,” said Stasiuk. “Our forwards will be going up against some very big packs so we need to be aggressive and physical, with supporting our players in offensive situations always on the forefront of our minds.”
Stafford pointed to several new faces to the national tournament that he expects strong performances from in Pittsburgh, including eight-man Laird Silsby ’15 and first-year prop Cole Baker ’16 – a product of rugby powerhouse Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. Jake Feury ’16 is another first-year who, after joining MCRC following football season in the fall, is set to play at outside center this weekend.
When asked about the team’s chances to win it all, Stafford described his team’s strong focus on its ultimate goal.
“I think we definitely look at ourselves as capable of winning it all,” said Stafford. “Our success in the fall is ancient history. We saw Dartmouth in the preseason, so we know what some of the competition looks like.”
Stasiuk agreed that the team was not looking to rest on its laurels.
“We are making history as we go and will look at any result as a success,” he said. “That said, we are an extremely competitive group of guys and we have our eyes set on the national title. For the seniors on the team, we are returning to the field in Pittsburgh where we lost the national championship game in 2011. We still feel the sting of that loss.”
The overall winner of the weekend advances to Bowling Green, Ohio for the national semifinals and championship in May.