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The Mid-South conference opened play this weekend with a pair of close games. Life edged Lindenwood 24-18 in Georgia but the big winner of the weekend was Clemson. In their first ever DIA match, The Tigers won a thrilling 34-33 shootout over Davenport in South Carolina.
The Mid-South expanded to five teams this year with the return of Arkansas State and the addition of Clemson from the now defunct ACRL conference.
The Tigers dominated the ACRL in recent years but joining this conference is a major step up in competition. Preparing for the conference season, Clemson spent a lot of time working on fitness and playing some tough non-conference competition.
“We had quiet confidence all week after the Navy match. Our players worked very hard in training, strength and conditioning and recovery. We have been building a culture for the last year, working toward a high performance environment, knowing every week will be a battle in the most competitive conference in college rugby,” Clemson coach Steve Lynch told Rugby Today.
Davenport opened the scoring with a try in the first couple of minutes. The game remained 5-0 for the first 25 minute before Clemson kicked a penalty to cut the deficit.
The teams traded tries to make it 12-8 before Clemson scored back-to-back tries from Lucas Beni and Jason Damm to take a 20-12 halftime lead. The scoring surge continued in the second half but this time Davenport worked its way back into the game. After the teams traded tries for a 27-19 score line, the Panthers added three penalties and barged their way over for a try to take a 33-27 lead.
In the final minute, Clemson’s Hunter Dawsey found pay dirt to cut the lead to 33-32. Clemson nailed the conversion to win a thrilling 34-33 contest.
“Our team did not panic, went about our business, worked it through the phases, created space for Hunter Dawsey to contribute to a great victory,” Lynch added.
It was a fantastic first ever match in the new conference and DIA. Lynch touted the work ethic, the depth and commitment of the members of the program.
“Key to the match was fitness and team culture. We used all 23, with no drop off. We have 50 players at training, working hard to improve the program without worrying who is in the 23. It was a program win, a culture win, a benchmark for a university with 50 years of history. We have a university culture of support. Regardless of the sport, the alumnae, the players, the families and the administration have rallied behind the program.”
In an incredibly physical game at Life, the Running Eagles held off a surge from Lindenwood to open conference play with a win. The schools traded penalties early before Life got a pair of tries to end the half at 17-6. Zander Van Schalkwyk dotted down first and Cody Melphy pounced on a charged down kick to extend the lead.
“The boys battled hard throughout the game. We made some early mistakes and the Running Eagles capitalized on them,” said Lindenwood hooker Gabriel Romero.
Emotions ran high in the second half but scoring remained at a premium until the final 20 minutes. Van Schalkwyk added another converted score to extend the lead but Lindenwood came charging back in the final quarter of the game.
“After falling behind in the first half we dug deep to face adversity and fought back,” said Lindenwood center Micky Bateman.
Lindewood got its first try of the game in the corner to cut the lead to 24-13 and capitalized on a Life knock on its own goal line to make it a one score game with 11 minutes remaining. The Lions, however, were unable to find the try zone in the final minutes and Life held on for the victory.
While Lindenwood seems to have closed the gap a bit, Life is still the team to beat in the Mid-South.
“It was an encouraging day overall. We bested the Running Eagles in a lot of areas of the pitch and heaped pressure onto them for much of the game. We know they’ll come back stronger in a month when we host them. We have to best their efforts every day from now until then in order to win the next one,” said Lindenwood coach Josh Macy.