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In a rematch of the Spring 2013 National Title game, the two-time defending DII National Champion, #1 University of Minnesota-Duluth will face #4 Salisbury University in the 3pm USA Rugby Division II National Semifinal at the John S. Roberts Rugby Pitch at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. The Fighting Penguins will look to win their third National Championship in a row on Saturday.
The last time these two clubs clashed was in the December of 2013 where Minnesota-Duluth beat Salisbury 31-7 to win its first title. Earlier in May of 2013, the Sharks were the victors winning the Spring 2013 National Championship. This Saturday’s semifinal will be the rubber match as two storied teams will battle once again.
Minnesota-Duluth brings a very aggressive style of play to the pitch and Head Coach Jeramy Katchuba explains, “We keep a fairly simple game plan that all players on our roster can succeed with and hopefully be on the same page. We have the ability and skill level to adjust, if needed, and play a more wide out game and that adjustment would happen during the game.”
The Fighting Penguins have a commitment to being the best team they can be and value team play above all. Impact performances come from all over the field, but prop Lars Anderson, #8 Luc Desroches, flyhalf Trace Bolstad, outside center Logan Hanson, and fullbach Matt Martin rise above the rest.
In the forwards, Anderson has ruled the pack from his tight head position for the past four seasons and Desroches is very dynamic on offense and sets the tone on defense. According to Coach Katchuba, Bolstad is a very cerebral flyhalf, who understands the game very well and can be effective in attack or in his distribution of the ball. Hanson is a tough line-breaker and Martin uses his speed to finish off opponents in the clutch.
Emerging as the Northern Lights Conference Champion this year over Winona State, Minnesota-Duluth battled the artic conditions in Des Moines, Iowa to advance to the Final Four. Coach Katchuba indicated that defeating Grand Valley State and Lindenwood-Belleville in the lead up to the semifinals under very tough weather conditions was the team’s signature moment of the season.
“The team really banded together to play extremely well on defense and maintain possession of the ball on offense,” Katchuba said of his team’s performance in the Midwest Regional. “It was around 25 degrees with 4" of snow on the field for our first game. The guys put the conditions out of their minds and played the best game they could in the conditions.”
With the Sharks on the horizon on Saturday, Coach Katchuba stated, “We have played Salisbury a couple of times over the past three years. They are the top program in DII in the country and what we all strive to be. They play very aggressive, but also play a lot of kick/chase rugby and are very successful at it. It will be tough to defeat Salisbury. We need to maintain possession of the ball, limit our errors and play as a team for 80 minutes. If we successfully do those three things, we will have an opportunity to win the game.” As for looking past their opponent to the National Championship, Katchuba added, “We take each game one at a time. If we win our first match then we will look at what we need to do for the second match of the weekend.”
After making it to three straight National Championships and winning against Minnesota-Duluth in 2013, the Sharks were absent from the 2014 Final Four after losing a close match to Notre Dame College in the quarterfinal round. In 2015, Salisbury has had an interesting season filled with early forfeitures and a disappointing loss to Mount St. Mary’s. A regular season win at Towson showed their fight, but the Sharks lost the Potomac Rugby Conference, 13-10, to Towson last month.
Taking the long road to the Final Four as the only entrant not to win its conference championship, Salisbury has already faced three challengers in the National Playoffs. After beating Coastal Carolina in the play-in game then VMI and UNC-Wilmington in the South Regional, the Salisbury fought tooth and nail to advance to the semifinal round.
The Sharks are reloaded and refocused this year emphasizing defense above all else. Still utilizing the kick and chase game they are known for, Salisbury runs a wide-open game where they use their speed and fitness to outplay and outlast their opponents. In the end, it is the total team defense that has stood out to Coach Doc Davis. “VMI and UNC-Wilmington were really good teams and I was surprised at the quality of our defense. Coach Creese has drummed into them endlessly about defense and it has really proved itself.”
The offense and defense run through three main cogs in the Salisbury engine. No. 8 Scotty Wheeler is the heart of the team driving the club with his spirit and determination. Center Nick Rodriguez is a jack-of-all-trades using his variety of skills to benefit each facet of the program. Finally, fullback Blake Carroll runs the offense with his great rugby IQ and his terrific boot sets up the field position game Salisbury excels at.
For Saturday’s match against Minnesota-Duluth, Coach Davis stated, “We seen their film and we played them twice in the last three years. We know how tough they are. They are a very strong club and they are very well organized.” This season, Salisbury has lived by the mantra that defense wins championships. With the defending National Champion on the slate Saturday, the Sharks will have an opportunity to assert themselves one more time.