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The eastern quarterfinal round of the Division I Men’s Club National Playoffs starts on Saturday at the Rugby Athletic Center in Charlotte, N.C. The East Regional features the Potomac Exiles (Mid-Atlantic) against the New York Athletic Club (NYAC, ARP) and Mystic River (Atlantic North) versus the Kansas City Blues (Midwest). The winners will play in the National Semifinal on Sunday to decide who advances to the National Championship in Glendale, Colo. on June 13th.
Potomac Exiles vs NYAC
In the first year after a merger of two prominent clubs in the Mid-Atlantic, the Potomac Exiles earned the bid into the quarterfinals with a 26-18 win over the Norfolk Blues. After an extended rest, Potomac will play NYAC next weekend in their first game.
“We have heard they are a really strong side and that’s what we expect,” Potomac head coach Chris Mahony said. “We’ll be expecting a team that’s a different caliber than the teams that we are used playing in competition. We know we have to lift our game and we have been training accordingly.”
The Exiles try to play a positive brand of rugby by getting everyone involved and given the opportunity to run with the ball. Front rowers Robert Garvis and Jason Vanterpool anchor the forward pack, while scrumhalf Chris Saint, wing Chris Frazier, and the Cima brothers (Ben and Matias) look to make an impact in the backs. Mahony is impressed with the enthusiasm of everyone for the unified club. “It’s a new club, so there were a lot of guys who came out looking to learn. The best thing was everyone’s willingness to play as part of a team rather than play as individuals.”
For the playoff run, Mahony stated, “We are focused on the first game. After that, we’ll look at the next one. The strength that we draw from is everyone playing as a team. That’s the key for us and that’s what we have to buy into to be successful. Everyone understanding their roles and everyone working really hard, instead of playing as individuals.”
After four Super League Championships in the last 10 years, NYAC welcomed the creation of the American Rugby Premiership this year to face a higher level of competition than that offered in DI. Coming in second to Life, NYAC received an automatic bid into the quarterfinals of the DI National Playoffs. According to their head coach, Philip Bailey, the first year in the ARP has been exciting and a great challenge, especially for his younger players.
“You always want to test yourself against the best and the ARP allows us to do this. We got better and improved every week during the ARP season, so we hope we can continue this into the DI playoffs.”
NYAC looks to play fast at every opportunity. The club’s strength lies in team speed. Not to count out the forwards, Pat Fiffe and James Denise have huge work rates and contest everything. Together they are the backbone of the side.
Looking towards the match against Potomac, Bailey said, “They are a good side. Any team who makes it this far must be given a huge pat on the back. We hope to concentrate on us. When we do that, we perform to our potential.” As a frontrunner in the DI Playoffs, NYAC is always eager to learn from mistakes in the quest of getting better.
Kansas City Blues vs Mystic River
It’s been three years since the Kansas City Blues have made it the quarterfinals of the DI National Playoffs. After emerging from the Midwest Conference with a victory over Metropolis, the Blues have shown resilience and fight this season to battle their way to the quarterfinals.
“We know what we're capable of and competition for spots means guys are always looking over their shoulder,” Blues head coach Markus Valovalo said. “I don't have a stable of Eagles, but what I do have is guys with a chip on their shoulder who relish the opportunity to go out against the best sides and show they can hold their own... We built this squad around developing local talent before complimenting that with foreign players. It's made us the deepest roster in the Midwest and was big part of why we won the league and punched our ticket to Charlotte.”
Kansas City prides itself on being physically and mentally tough and being rugby smart on both sides of the ball.
“A lot of sides we come up against beat teams with their athleticism. Our focus has been on beating you with our rugby,” Valovalo stated. “That means a solid, defensive platform paired with high-percentage decision making on offense.”
With a backline composed of players who placed third in the nation in 7s this past summer, Mystic should be ready to for a potent running attack. Flanker Lloyd Saunders, from Northampton, England, is incredible at the breakdown and, with 20 tries this season, eightman Gannon Moore has the rare combination of being able to run over forwards and run away from backs. Club MVP and captain/flyhalf Ed Mills led from the front this season. Valovalo added that Mills is a, “true triple threat guy (run/kick/pass) as he pulls the strings in our back field and has proven he can win games for us from anywhere on the pitch.”
Going into the game against Mystic River, Valovalo doesn’t know what to expect from the Atlantic North Champ.
“I saw they put away White Plains in the last round and barely broke a sweat. We respect them, but we don't fear them. We got here on our merit too and when that whistle blows, reputation will go out the window.” The Blues try to limit their mistakes and don't beat themselves.
“We pride ourselves on not conceding soft tries and sustaining pressure with a balance of running and territory rugby. We don't panic on defense and back ourselves on counterattack. Sure, there are teams there with a bigger profile, but this deep in the season any team can win on their day. If we play our game, play Blues rugby we are very hard to beat.”
As with the Blues, it has not been since 2012 that Mystic River has reached the round of eight. Their success has been the culmination of year’s hard work at all levels of the club that started with a successful merger with Middlesex last August.
The team set a goal to have both their DI and DII sides qualify for the National Round of 16 and it was realized when each side reached the conference finals. The DI side has taken the next step after blowing out White Plains, 48-5, to earn a trip to play Kansas City in the East Regionals.
The forwards set the tone for the Mystic attack, but head coach Josh Smith sees, “our attack as expansive, yet balanced. We like to mix it up and play a bit more Southern Hemisphere rugby.”
Former 7s Eagle Pono Haitsuka has stepped up to play flyhalf and has led by example with fearless defense even with limited 15s experience. Flanker Joe Shurmitias has an unreal work rate and is a true "mongrel" at breakdown, and outside center Vini Daley, fully recovered from a broken leg at World Club 7s, has been solid all year helping in the centers and on the wing.
Coach Smith knows the competition his club will be colliding with in the quarterfinals.
“The KC Blues were third in 2014 in 7s and won a very competitive Midwest region. Ed Mills is an outstanding No. 10, very creative, backs dynamic, and Gannon Moore is a beast off the back of the scrum.” However, Smith believes his team has the skills to overcome their opponent advance to the Final Four. “We will play smart and execute in our own half. When given opportunity off turnover ball, we punish the opposition quickly and we will play stout penalty-free defense.”