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The marquee match of Day Two of the USA Rugby Emirates Airline Club National Championships is the Division II test between the Life Running Eagles and the St. Louis Bombers. On Sunday at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo., the top teams of Men’s DII will be the final match of the championship series at 3:00 pm MST. This is both team’s first time in the DII Championship and each club brings impressive records to Glendale in hopes of winning one last match for the trophy and glory.
Coming from the only two conferences without Division I rugby, both clubs took interesting paths to get to the National Final. After playing in the American Rugby Premiership in the fall, Life reassessed its club program and took a different path in the spring. All of the players on the squad are either enrolled as graduate or undergraduate students or are recent Alums of Life University, but don’t have many of same faces from the Elite Training Group of the fall.
Playing in the Carolina/Georgia geographic union of the South Conference, Life dominated the local competition and took the show on the road in late March to beat last year’s National Runner-Up, the Detroit Tradesmen, 29-14. In the South Championships, the Running Eagles breezed by Boca Raton and Miami to secure its place in the East Regionals. In Pittsburgh, Pa., Life tackled the Morris Lions, 32-15, in the quarterfinals and on Sunday, beat Detroit again, 32-27, to advance to the finals in Colorado.
Head coach Blake Bradford attributed his team’s success at Regionals to their attacking mindset. “Whether we are on attack or defense, we like to do so from an attacking mindset... [We have a] team first mentality. We have had complete buy-in from our guys in all we do. Everyone has their roles and responsibilities within the team. Our strength has been in taking care of the small things and controlling the controllables.”
Like Life, the St. Louis Bombers have enjoyed a fruitful season this year. After losing in the Frontier Conference playoffs last season, the Bombers reloaded and refocused their efforts for 2017 and achieved some amazing results. St. Louis went undefeated in conference play and only incurred a single blemish on its record when it played at DI Palmer College on Easter weekend.
After shoring up weaknesses found after the Palmer loss, the Bombers went on attack runs in the Frontier Playoffs dispatching the Denver Barbarians and the Glendale Raptors in wet conditions to book its ticket to Tucson. Once at the West Regionals, St. Louis clipped the Ventura County Outlaws, 22-17, in the quarterfinals and almost doubled up the Sacramento Blackhawks, 49-26, in the semifinals to earn its way to the championship.
The Bombers have heavily leaned on fitness and club maturity to power them to the finals. “We have an increased focus on fitness and conditioning levels, we also have a great deal of maturity, experience and leadership in our squad,” head coach Ben Meyers said. “It has helped in tough game situations and adverse conditions where we have had to adapt and execute our game plan. On our game day roster, we have 14 players who have been playing for the Bombers for at least five years, some much more than that. This has also helped in creating a great camaraderie amongst the players and you can really tell that they are all playing for each other and have a strong belief in what they are aiming to achieve each time they take the field.”
Leading the way for St. Louis is the scrumhalf-flyhalf connection of Bryan Hebron and Keegan Neal. Hebron is a consistent distributor and Neal is deadly with his boot. The veteran leadership of captain David Klug, Brandon Hamburg, Colin Fitzhenry, and Eric Hinson in the forwards provides a great platform to attack from, but the real weapon in the scrum is No. 8 Jason Amarossa. “He has been a real powerhouse for us this season off the back of the scrum and we hope he can set the tone for us in the championship with his hard-nosed running and crushing defense that he showed in the Regionals,” Meyers remarked.
The Running Eagles counter with the likes of David Gannon, Neethling Gericke, Jake McFadden, and Marcus Walsh in key positions. The experience those players have brought to the club has greatly influenced the development of the younger players. Big strides have been noticed in some exciting youngsters such as Ryan Hercules and Daemon Torres, who was recently selected to the USA Rugby Junior All-Americans squad.
Even with the wealth of experience and athletic ability on the club, Life won’t discount its opponent on Sunday. “[St. Louis] made it to the final and that speaks volumes to their abilities,” Bradford said. “We aren't that familiar with them, but we are expecting a tough final. They are a big team so we will need another big defensive effort.”
As for the Bombers, Meyers has done his homework on Life and will have his troops ready. “[Life] is very well-drilled and have brilliant execution. We really need to make sure we maintain possession when in attacking positions, limit our mistakes with ball in hand, and maintain a solid defensive line across the field because they are a team that will make you pay on the counter-attack. Shutting them down efficiently and not letting their strong runners get on the outside will be challenging, but necessary for us to limit the potency of their attack.”
Playing in the finals for St. Louis is a testament that hard work pays off and winning the title would be the icing on the cake on a very successful and exciting season for the club. “This is the furthest the club has gotten in a national competition,” Meyers concluded. “Our roster is filled with some very committed players who have given a lot of time not just to their own development as players, but also to the club in general both on and off the field. As a result, the club has become stronger, our player depth has become greater, and we have been in a position this year to make the most of our opportunities.”
This weekend has the potential to be the perfect climax for the Life University Rugby program as a whole. “We have a proud rugby program and we are very fortunate to have both men's teams make it to the National Championship,” Bradford stated. “This is a big weekend for Life U with both our men's and women's varsity teams competing at the CRC as well. A championship will be a massive reward for all the hard work the guys put in.”
Sunday’s action will begin at 11:00 am MST with the DIII Men’s Final between the Bremer County Bucks and the St. Louis Royals followed by the DII Women’s Final at 1:00 pm featuring San Francisco Golden Gate playing the Milwaukee Scylla. The DII Men’s Final at 3:00 pm will conclude this year championship series. All games will be streamed live on the Rugby Channel website.