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Austin Blacks with ball. Norma Salinas photo

In the West Regionals, a brand new set of teams, save one club, the Dallas Reds, will play in the quarterfinal round of the 2015 Division I Men’s Club National Playoffs at Ray Sheeran Field at Treasure Island in San Francisco, Calif. this weekend. With the establishment of the American Rugby Premiership, the matchups were shuffled with the EPA Razorbacks (Pacific North) playing the Dallas Reds (Red River #2 seed) and Belmont Shore (Pacific South) against the Austin Blacks (Red River #1 seed). The West Final Four match will be held on Sunday with the winner advancing to the National Championship on June 13th in Glendale, Colo.

EPA Razorbacks vs Dallas Reds
With an undefeated regular season record, the East Palo Alto Razorbacks will make their first splash into the DI National Playoffs. The Razorbacks’ last experience in Nationals was when they won the DII National Championship in 2009. Head coach Holani Vaka admires the discipline of his young team entering the next step of the postseason. “They are still developing,” Vaka said. “There are no big names on our team, still the local boys. Same people, just getting better.”

The Razorbacks employ a fast-paced, open style, playing to space. Captain and eightman Siupeli Sakalia leads the group as a fierce line breaker who's fast to the open side. Flanker Langilangi Haupeakui contributes with his excellent offensive and defensive skills. However, the Razorbacks will be without key outside center Isimeli Ratumaimuri, who was lost to injury in the last game.

The first hurdle in the way for the Razorbacks will be last year’s National Semifinalist, the Dallas Reds. Vaka said that Dallas, “is one of the best. They have international players and are a strong club.”

Vaka stated that he believes his club will persevere based on their commitment to the team this season. “They have been working hard and this should be their year. We’ve been undefeated and the defense has been pretty good.”

As the lone repeat contender in the West Regional, the Dallas Reds advanced to the Final Four last year before falling to New Orleans. As the #2 seed in the Red River, it has not been an easy season for Dallas. Those challenges have made the team stronger and better prepared for the National Playoffs.

“We had a situation where we really faced adversity with some serious injuries and they all happened at the same time,” head coach Dean Robinson stated. “We went to Austin got our butts handed to us and we were then in a scramble situation. We had to go back to New Orleans and win that game otherwise our chances at winning the championship were virtually over. The guys really rallied and played the best game of rugby we played all year against New Orleans in New Orleans.”

The Reds are a balanced team that stresses high percentage rugby. They've relied on a forward-oriented game to set up good ball for the backs.

“Obviously, the backs can’t operate very well without a good platform,” Robinson added. “We’ve worked really hard to make that primary source of good ball from us.”

Eightman Dale Russ has been a strong runner and an uncompromising player for the Reds, and lock Jonny Heron has been the team’s most consistent performer. According to Robinson, the most mercurial player on the squad is inside center Kelly Kolberg, an Eagles Camp invite last year.

For their upcoming match against the EPA Razorbacks, Robinson said, “They are very typical of Pacific Island teams, very strong runners, and great ball skills. They play with a real enjoyment. Nobody would deny that playing against those sort of guys is problematic at the best of times. What I have seen of them is that you don’t want to kick the ball at them too often and they certainly know how to punish you if are not ready for them. They deserve all the recognition that they are getting.”

Even though Dallas has overcome many tests to get to the National Quarterfinals, Robinson indicated the only thing that may be standing in its way is itself. “We are probably the poster child for potential unfulfilled. If we can get this right, we are going to be a real tough ask for anybody. We got some hell of a good players. We struggle to put it all together for 80 minutes.”

Belmont Shore vs Austin Blacks
The DI side for Belmont Shore is in a unique situation. After winning the DI National Championship in 2012 and a loss in the Elite Eights in 2013, Belmort Shore missed the tournament last year because the club focused their resources on the new Pacific Rugby Premiership side. This year, the DI club is back with a purpose and may be one of the best-prepared teams in the playoffs.

“We practice against the best,” head coach Rex Pitts stated. “Very few DI sides have twice a week contact against a real formidable opponent. I think that really makes a difference for us.”

Pitts coaches a fast, up-tempo strategy. When Belmont Shore can’t outrun its opponent, Pitts said, “I’m fortunate enough that we have a big enough squad that if we had to get down and basically fight in the trenches, we have been able to do that and hold our own. Our normal style is pretty loose, pretty fast.”

Pitts emphasizes the team component of his club, but a few players have made an impact this year. First year wing Alex Fletcher has immense potential, third year second row Blake Rowerdink plays with a non-stop motor, and captain and No. 12 Baden Woodman is the best player on the field and is the cog that keeps everything moving.

This weekend’s game between Belmont Shore and the Austin Blacks is a rematch of a 2013 National Playoff Consolation game, where Belmont Shore won 29-8. Pitts characterized Austin as “a big bunch of cowboys. They are a big group of guys that are very physical. We played them a couple years ago in the consolation round in Dallas. They are big, pretty hard hitters, so its going to be a contrast in styles. They kept the best game for last on Saturday.”

Belmont Shore prides itself on resilience and experience. “I don’t have a big squad. I only have like 25 guys,” Pitts said. “But they have all been starters. There’s not a drop when I have to put a sub in. I have got some really young players that are really energetic. It’s a nice mix with my veteran players that have the savvy and knowledge about how to keep them in the game. It’s that blend where we temper both ways. If we are going to have the opportunity, I think that’s it.”

With only one stain on their record, the Austin Blacks captured the top seed in the Red River and an automatic bid to the West Regionals. This year marks the Blacks’ first venture to the postseason since they lost to Seattle in 2013. The return to the quarterfinals can be attributed to a change in the club’s culture.

“The guys are putting in more work in the offseason which in turn has motivated them to get more out of the season rugby wise,” head coach Tane Jericevich said. “We have a good balance on the squad. We attack on more than one avenue. We just try to play the team and make sure everyone has a role to play. Very team structure and team attacking style.”

Jericevich expects a fast, expansive game from Belmont Shore with their potent backs attacking from all angles. Jericevich believes his club has all the physical elements to advance to the Final, it comes down to the mental aspect of the game. “We have put in a lot of hard work. The guys definitely deserve to do well. The question for us is whether we can get our heads right and approach each game with the right mindset. If we do that, we’ll have a good chance [to win the National Championship].”