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The first step in the quest for the Keystone Conference title and an automatic bid to the DIAA playoffs starts this weekend. Additionally, the top two teams in the conference will get bids into American College Rugby Championship (ACRC) bowl weekend later this fall.
With their wins last weekend, West Virginia and St. Joe’s earned the top seeds of the eastern and western divisions and home games for the semifinals. The second seed of the west, Pittsburgh, will go to St. Joe’s, and the eastern No. 2 seed, Temple, will travel to West Virginia. In the bottom of the bracket, Millersville is at Rutgers and West Chester will play at Shippensburg.
For the West Virginia vs Temple semifinal, the Mountaineers hope to return to the conference finals again this year. West Virginia is undefeated this season and has a staggering average margin of victory of 54.5 points. The Mountaineers are led by eightman Ryan Blythe, who has eight tries on the season, and fullback Chris Mackenrodt is the conference point leader with 60 total points.
On playing the Owls, West Virginia head coach Richard Glover said, “The boys are really excited to have another home game. We are not going to change too much. We haven’t seen Temple this year so we’ll plan to play them plenty of respect. We will go out with our game plan and hopefully it will work.”
As the owners of a 2-1 record, Temple’s only divisional loss of the season came against St. Joe’s last week. Dangerous wing Peter Mulville led the team with six tries and 30 points and nine players contributed with tries this season. “I haven’t seen West Virginia since last year. I heard they have an extremely strong side and not sure what to expect," said Temple coach John Sciotto. "We have to see where they attack us and then make the adjustments.”
St. Joe’s closest margin of victory this year came against a crossover division match on Sept. 20th against Pittsburgh. The score of that game was 38-21, and St. Joe’s won with a dominating first half. Thereafter, the Hawks have had an impressive season blowing out their opponents by an average of 63 points a game. The Hawks employ a forward-heavy attack and have six players with at least three tries. Inside center Dan Deal has five tries this fall, and flyhalf Jimmy Wolfer is at the helm of the backs and leads the club with a total of 55 points.
On the upcoming match against Pitt, St. Joe’s head coach Dan Yarusso said, “We were really impressed with Pitt. We played them in a cross-division match that didn’t count towards the standings. They played really well. They controlled the ball well in their forwards and they got some really good skill players in their backs. Their flyhalf, Christian Quiros, is a good player and he’s definitely got some weapons there now.”
“We played [St. Joe’s] earlier at home and they gave us a pretty good lesson," said Pitt coach Derek Neubaurer. "They got a lot of skill, a lot of good athletic ability. Their scrumhalf is really good. They have some good loose forwards and the backline is pretty dangerous.”
Eightman Noble Smith and the Panthers inside center are tied for the team lead with four tries each. Flyhalf Christian Quiros is 15-for-19 on conversions and aced two penalty kicks for a club-leading total of 36 points. “We are going to be focusing a lot on defense this week," said Neubaurer. "Our defense was pretty subpar this last weekend and in the first game versus St. Joe’s. We’ll work on that trying to reduce our mistakes on offense and play better overall defense.”
“In terms of competition, previous seasons have been much closer. Each division has two obvious top teams and two obvious bottom teams. Much less competitive than previous years,” said Keystone commissioner Bryan Hynes. “The top four teams are all quite accomplished, but have only played one or two competitive conference games this fall. It will be interesting to see how each team does against stiffer opposition.”
The home team of the championship final has yet to be determined. “With such a geographically large conference we didn't want one team to get an advantage of playing closer to home just because of a decision on venue made in the preseason,” said Hynes. “Home field will be awarded to the team who earns it by having the most conference points or, if tied, securing it through our tiebreakers. You have to earn home field in the KRC.”
If both top seeds advance, the first tiebreaker is point differential, and the second is tries scored. West Virginia and St. Joe’s are tied in conference points and point differential. St. Joe’s leads West Virginia by three tries, so the home field advantage will come down to how the teams perform this weekend.