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Potomac Exiles with ball against Norfolk. Evan Lappen photo

A new year brings many changes to the MAC. Last season, DI ended with the Potomac Exiles winning their first league championship with a 26-18 victory over the Norfolk Blues in the title match.

For the 2015-2016 season, last year’s MAC DII Champion, Rocky Gorge, is the new kid on the block joining seven teams from Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Five teams will have new head coaches at the helm, so with new and veteran players beginning the season in two weeks, the field is wide open in the Mid-Atlantic.

With new faces in new places, the competition in the MAC will be strong. As always, depth and the ability to travel well will be paramount. Increased competition will only better prepare teams for the higher quality opponents they will meet in Nationals.

The first week of MAC matches begins Sept. 19th with the Raleigh Vipers at the Potomac Exiles, Northern Virginia at the Baltimore-Chesapeake Brumbies, and the Pittsburgh Harlequins at the Norfolk Blues.

Potomac Exiles
Although their season ended at the hands of the eventual DI National Champion, NYAC, in the national quarterfinals, the Potomac Exiles know competition in the MAC will be stronger this season. 

“We expect the other teams to be gunning for us having some experience of our game,” head coach Chris Mahony stated. “That means we need to add variety, and most importantly, consistency.”

Even though they will be losing the services of Chris Frazier, Aki Raymond, and captain Owen Lentz this year, Potomac is up to the task of defending its title. Picking up the slack will be Capital Select Side representatives Alexander Diegel, Jovilisi Fotofili, Chris Saint, Matt Quigley and, Joanel Joseph. To fill the leadership void in the absence of Lentz, Mahony said, “we expect Jason Vanterpool to lead up front. His fitness, strength and aggression across the park were huge for us last year. Similarly, Ben Weidemer at lock runs our lineout and leads around the field.”

Although Potomac has to take care of business in MAC, its goal is to advance farther in Nationals. To that end, Mahony said, “Discipline in executing our game plan is the difference in our performance. If we are to go significantly beyond the MAC, we need to ensure that we set a different standard of discipline in executing that game and in valuing possession.”

Norfolk Blues Complicated by missed opportunities, the Norfolk Blues were only eight points away from the MAC Championship last season.

“At any time, any team can win,” said Blues head coach Chris Porter. “It is important to build depth in your team and get them all good quality playing time. With the travel in Division I, not all your best players are always available.  Having your reserves ready to play up to that pace is a big factor is winning on those weekends.”  

Most of the Blues’ roster will be returning, with the exception of fullback and long-time captain John Leo. Stepping up to assume the leadership role is Capital Select side captain Fred Wintermantel.  Prop Brian Bidder and flyhalf Johnny Cameron joined Wintermantel on the select side. In the pack, Kevin Mott, Sam Johnson, and Doc Irey will be taking on bigger roles in the game plan and Dutch Jones, Anthony Kowalski, and Jake Humphrey will anchor the backline. Breakout years are expected from Nick Sandoval and Zach Duff.  

“I expect it to be another tough season.  We are going to focus on what we are doing and who we are playing that weekend.  You can't look past anyone in Division I,” said Porter, who is looking forward to Saturday’s opener against the Pittsburgh Harlequins.

“We are returning most of our DI team. We have a good looking group of new players. We just need to see them in a game atmosphere.”

Rocky Gorge
After winning the DII MAC Championship over Wilmington, Rocky Gorge earned an automatic promotion to Division I. With two DII National Championships in the last four years, Gorge has its sights set on a new challenge.

“We are expecting to grow as a club and expand our rugby culture,” said new head coach Nick DiMichele. “We expect our DI team to step up to the challenge. We are ready for tough competition, and are looking to improve the quality of rugby in the Mid-Atlantic.”

In the effort to achieve that goal, all but two starters from last year’s team will be returning, including 10 players from the Capital Select Side, including standouts Bryan Perez, Matt Carroll, Tony Ayigah, Will Miller, Sam Ausden, Josh Brown, Nick Kuhl, and Jay Benedetti, as well as new additions, Matias and Ben Cima. With a DI and DIII side and over 50 players at every practice, starting spots are up for grabs and competition for the 23-man squad is intense.

Even with all the talent on the roster, DiMichele preaches the team mentality to his club.

“Rugby is the ultimate team game. The 15 players on the field need to make an impact. The entire pack is returning for the fourth year in a row,” he said. “Each year we grow, gel, and play together as a unit better then the year before.  We feed off of each other and it's been a lot of fun. Our backs are young and dangerous... The entire Rocky Gorge nation is looking forward to this season.”

Pittsburgh Harlequins
2014-2015 was a rough year for the Pittsburgh Harlequins, having gone 0-12.  A hard reset and rebuild was deemed necessary by club officials to change the culture of the team. Former Wheeling Jesuit University head coach Eric Jerpe was brought in to give a new perspective.

“We didn't win a match last year,” said captain Paul Holmes. “We went from having 7-10 guys as practice last year and 14-15 at games, and now we have 25-30 guys at practice. From coaching, leadership, team unity, practice and socials, etc., the team has lacked in all subjects. But because of the new coaching and commitment, culture is growing exponentially. [Jerpe] runs a very fast-paced, structured practice. The players seem to be responding well.”

With the new coaching and club direction, the team has enjoyed a successful offseason. Three Wheeling Jesuit graduates and a host of newcomers with experience give the Harlequins a positive outlook for the season. They will join Zack Schell, Geoff Jordan, Rob Roche, Jake Smith, Luke Titus, and leading team try-scorer Ted Sheedy to make an impact on the club.

“Hopefully with some of the new players that are coming in,” Jerpe said, “they will bring more experience, more knowledge of the game, and help rebuild the culture within the club.”

“The Pittsburgh Harlequins have high hopes and expectations,” Holmes said. “Due to new membership and coaching, the Harlequins are buzzing with excitement and anticipation. I personally believe we will surprise many teams in the MAC this year. This will be the best year the team has had in 5-plus years.” Jerpe added, “Right now, it’s to rebuild the club. Hopefully, get the numbers back up and make Pittsburgh competitive once again.”

Schuylkill River Exiles
The major news of the offseason for the Schuylkill River Exiles was the merger with Second City Troop, expanding the club to playing in three divisions (DI, DIII, and DIV). With the merger, a former international player and coach with a ton of experience at all levels, Nick Clapinson, was named the new director of rugby and head coach.

“We really want to challenge for the MAC Championship in each division we play in,” co-captain Patrick Boyle said. “We are not a club that will be satisfied with just fielding a team in three divisions, we want to win. We want to improve each player with our club structure and we think that will put us in a great place to win in the end.”

Schuylkill River has over 100 athletes in its player pool, and the goal is to utilize all three sides to keep everyone playing and engaged.

“We expect every player to contribute and make an impact,” said former head coach and current DIII coach Bill Jalbert. “Rugby is a true team game, and one player's individual success is the result of 14 others executing their responsibilities.”

For the DI side, the Exiles were 8-4 last year, but they were penalized five points in the standings for an ineligible player. Entering the playoffs in fourth place, the season ended with a three-point loss to Potomac in the conference semifinals.

“We identified some technical and tactical areas which need improvement as well as some adjustments to general strategy,” said Jalbert. “Obviously, with a merger and a new coaching structure, opportunities for improvement and positive change are plentiful.  It's going to be an exciting season.”

Baltimore-Chesapeake Brumbies
Baltimore-Chesapeake enjoyed a successful 2014-2015 season after going 9-3 and reaching the conference semifinals. Although their journey was stopped short of their final destination, there is plenty to be hopeful for this season.

“We had a disappointing end to an otherwise great season and it's something we haven't forgotten,” captain Ryan Burns. “Our goal each week is to be better today than at any point last season.

“We've been very fortunate to be returning nearly our entire starting side, but with the number of new players we've added to the team every returning player has to earn their spot back.”

Capital Select Side members Burns, Evan Harkum, and Bryan Kaminski lead a powerful squad skippered by new head coach Dean Wharekura. In an effort to get solid work for all of their players, BC has added a DIII side to bolster their depth.

“We're excited for this year. With the new DI/DIII structure, we've nearly doubled our numbers at practice and DIII is eager to come out hard.  We expect every DIII player to be fighting for a DI spot, pushing everyone on the team to be better than last year,” said Burns. 

“We're asking everyone to step up and perform better than they did last year.  Our team has always played well together as a unit; we've never had an individual player win a match for us. We win as a team.”  

Northern Virginia Head coach Mike Sohdi’s NOVA team endured a disappointing 2-10 season last year while in the midst of a rebuilding phase for the club. NOVA hopes to build on an encouraging 7s season where it finished third in the MAC standings. Sodhi’s main takeaway from last season is that he knows the quality of players he has on the club.

“All members of our organization have been capped,” Sodhi said. “I realized early on in fall 2014 that we were in a rebuilding stage. To keep interest in playing for NOVA, all players were rotated into the A-side week to week.”

NOVA has 25 returning players this season and each has had serious A-side experience. Adam Henderson and Joey Tropea have been named captains and are expected to step up this season for NOVA to be successful. Back Anthony Everson earned a spot on the Capital Select Side and will bring that experience back to the club.

Sohdi’s expectation for the season is he wants his players, “to be competitive in each match and hopefully beat some of the teams that have success making the top four and playoffs in our division year to year.”

Raleigh Vipers
The Raleigh Vipers finished in fifth place last season, but played well with throughout the year in DI. Long serving head coach Rick Bell has stepped away from his position this year and entrusted the club in the capable hands of Mark Hemingway.

“The overall standard of MAC has increased,” said Hemingway. “Players are fitter, stronger and better coached.  We've invested heavily in pre-season preparation, baseline fitness, core skills and tactical play.”

With the goal being to make the playoffs, changes in coaching staff has brought a new playing style that the Vipers are confident will challenge the strongest teams in MAC.  Most of the starting 15 returns, and the depth of the squad has grown tremendously.  Recruitment and numbers have been good enough to field a second side in Carolina D4.

Sevens has helped Raleigh with its experience level, as several of the senior players broke into representative sevens rugby this past summer. The product of the sevens program will be displayed this fall on the pitch.

Hemingway stated that newly confirmed captain, Gareth Jones, will lead a very established and dynamic team. “Last year saw an influx of new and exciting additions and the changes meant we were guilty of not reaching our potential, this year should see us capitalize on stability and consistency,” Hemingway said.