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Gorge and Wisconsin scrum down in the mud. Evan Lappen photo

Three of the four clubs from last year have returned to represent their conferences in eastern half of the 2015 Division II Men’s Club National Playoffs. With a slight shakeup from last year, Wisconsin (Midwest) will play the New York Rugby Club (Atlantic North) and Rocky Gorge (Mid-Atlantic) will square off against the Atlanta Old White (South). With each team’s goal to make it to the National Championship in Glendale, Colo. on June 13th, a grueling two-day regional awaits them in Charlotte, N.C. this weekend.

Atlanta Old White vs Rocky Gorge
After capturing their third-straight Southern Conference title, Atlanta Old White enters the Regionals with something to prove after exiting early in last year’s quarterfinals against New Haven. Head coach Francesco Balsas attributes his club’s achievement to the passion and sacrifice that all the players have been putting in this season.

“This year, we had promoted three players from DIII to DII, young and talented players that will represent our club at Nationals on the DII squad," Balsas said. "The capability of this team to overcome adversities and to adapt its way of redistribution of the game [has benefited the club immensely]."

The club culture is to play as a team without freelancing and improve the players without sacrificing the performance of the team.

“We do not highlight individualities, but only team effort and hard-work. Our club has been the champion of the South for the past three years because all the players understand that it is the team effort rather than few,” said Balsas. “We understand that the Northeast way of playing is by stacking tanks for several phases before opening the ball to the backs, but our dynamo doesn’t rely on our forwards, nor backs. We always try to keep a dynamic game.”

As for their opponent in the first round, Balsas said, “Rocky Gorge has lot of experience at Nationals and that may play in their favor. I think they have the tendency to rely on their forwards. I think it will be an interesting match, we look forward for Saturday to show what we have to bring to the table. Frankly, I don't like to think about our opponents, but rather keep working on our way of play... At this level, any team at the Elite Eight can win the championship and it’s a matter of who has the least injuries. Old White can win the tournament because it's core values: Tradition, passion, and sacrifice.”

In reaching their fifth-straight National Playoffs, Rocky Gorge has had one of the arguably most successful runs in DII. Before embarking to DI next season, Gorge will attempt to win their third National Championship in the last four years. As the Mid-Atlantic representative, the first step to repeat will be against the Atlanta Old White.

“AOW has a good scrumhalf and a #13 and a #15 who are dangerous,” head coach Will Brewington said. “They are pretty aggressive around the breakdown and like to slow the ball down. I want to see how our pack goes against theirs. I put a lot of stock in scrummaging because if you can’t win your own scrum, it’s going to be a long day.”

Experience and athleticism are Gorge’s strengths going into the East Regionals. 12members from the 2012 Championship are still with the team and 20 return from last year’s trip. A revamped backline has added try-scoring ability and creative play, moreso this year than last year.

“We are an athletic team,” Brewington stated. “1-15, we are very athletic. I still consider us forward oriented, although we have a talented back three. Our backs are generating more offense, but the foundation is the forwards.”

Gorge’s tenacity has been brought to the forefront this year.

“With the experience of the club winning in 2012, getting punched in the face in 2013, and then winning again in 2014, we have realized it takes work year in and year out and you are not successful based of your name,” assistant coach Nick DiMichele said. “The entire team is looking at this differently and we want to go to DI with a bang.”

The refuse to lose, unwilling to give an inch, tough attitude encompasses all facets of the club. “We go out and expect to win,” Brewington added.

New York Rugby Club vs Wisconsin
The newcomer to the party is the New York Rugby Club (NYRC), who defeated Mystic River to gain the Atlantic North’s invitation to the National Playoffs. Dropping from DI after the 2012 season, this is NYRC’s first foray into Nationals as a DII team. “We have been together for two years with very few changes and so we have gelled together nicely,” head coach Greg Norris stated. “One of our strengths is our depth at almost every position.” The aspect of the club that has impressed Coach Norris this year is “the willingness to compete for positions, to improve and play a better and more entertaining brand of rugby. One in which the players enjoy playing the game and playing together, for each other and for the club.”

NYRC’s style of play complements a very balanced team with strengths in both backs and forwards. A game plan of securing the ball with their big forwards and moving to their speed in the backs has been effective to a 12-1 overall record. NYRC will be tested in quarterfinals against the Midwest Champion. “Wisconsin is a team that has been to the finals before,” Norris said. “They are an experienced team who seldom make errors. As a well balanced team themselves, we will have our work cut out for ourselves.”

Coach Norris is optimistic and confident in NYRC’s road ahead. “At this stage of the game, it is about having the best game every game. All the teams of the Elite Eight are good teams and any one of them could potentially win the National title. It takes

your best game for the following three games and always the luck of the bounce or the unlucky bounce for the opposition. The key is being able to capitalize on that bounce.”

To oppose NYRC, Wisconsin will represent the Midwest for the fourth year in a row. After making it to the Finals in 2012 and then winning the National Championship in 2013, Wisconsin lost a defensive clash against Rocky Gorge last year in the quarterfinals. This season, the club from Madison is once again undefeated and came from behind by two tries to scratch by the Detroit Tradesmen 28-27 in the conference final.

Reloaded to make a deep playoff run, Wisconsin plays a very team-oriented game with a slow and methodical approach and a deadly rolling maul. It doesn’t matter the situation, Wisconsin has shown that they can stare down adversity and beat the competition against heavy odds this season. “We have shown an ability to perform well and pull out victories in close matches,” head coach Adam Thimmig said. “Coming from behind to win the Midwest Championship against Detroit Tradesmen and holding off a late charge with defense against South Side Irish in the Midwest semi-final [are examples of this ability].”

In their way is NYRC. Thimmig stated that they have a complicated playbook, and are from New York. If Wisconsin beats NYRC, the National Semifinal could potentially set up a match against the only team that beaten them in the last four years, Rocky Gorge. On the prospect of winning the Championship this year, Thimmig said, “Just gotta be our year. Our sister club, WWRFC, is at Nationals chasing the same destiny, so we have a huge build in cheering section. The vibe is right. The focus is tight.”