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Life West with ball. Bill Thomas photo

As with the DI clubs in the West Regionals of the Division II Men’s Club National Playoffs, three new teams have emerged to represent their respective conferences. However, the 2014 National Finalist has returned to take another shot at the crown. Starting at 1:30pm on Saturday at Ray Sheeran Field at Treasure Island in San Francisco, Calif., the Life West Gladiators (Pacific North) challenge the St. Louis Bombers (Frontier), and the Tempe Old Devils (Pacific South) battle the Dallas Reds (Red River). The DII National Semifinal is scheduled for 1:15pm on Sunday with a place in Glendale, Colo. on June 13th awaiting the victor.

Dallas Reds vs Tempe Old Devils
Although they didn’t advance as far as their DI counterparts last season, the Dallas Reds’ DII side is poised to make an impact in the National Playoffs. This year, the Reds secured the No. 1 seed in the Red River Conference Playoffs in the final week of season and parlayed that into two wins over Houston United and the Little Rock Stormers to advance to the Elite Eight this weekend. With both sides reaching the National Quarterfinals in their division, the club is extremely proud of what they have accomplished.

Dallas manager Filip Keuppens has taught his players to play selfless, disciplined, high-percentage rugby. The club’s style of play doesn’t lend itself to the forwards or backs, but a systems-dominant strategy.

“Our successes come from the guys being religiously dedicated to playing the same pattern and playing as a unit,” Keuppens said. “We’ve used both forwards dominant strategies and backs dominant strategies this year adjusting as needed based on our opposition.” Captain/inside center Gus Holt has been a great leader and defensive force for the team and eightman Vince Chase, who played tight end at SMU, is hitting his rugby stride and his on-field awareness is high. Backs Andrew Campisi, Thomas Hever, Rashad Harbor are all playmakers and scoring threats.

With a date set against the talented Tempe Old Devils on Saturday, Keuppens has his players ready. “Everything goes through the [Taefu] brothers at No. 9 and No. 10. If you let those guys control the game, you are going to be in a lot of trouble. It is very important not to give up easy channels for those guys to strike. You can’t give a team that like to throw the ball around and play wide open rugby with a lot of room. These guys are very well coached and Salty [Thompson] has got a pretty impressive résumé. You can’t really let those guys get on the front foot. It requires us to be very disciplined on defense. Hopefully, the plan we have put together on attack and on defense will be enough to beat a team that we have a ton of respect for.”

After a disappointing showing the National Championship last year, Tempe knows what it takes to win and how to get back to the title game. On the mindset of his players going into this season, head coach Junior Faasoo stated, “Last year, we went all the way to the Nationals and it was something new for the rest of the guys. They had a taste for it and now they are hungry for it again. That’s why I think we are going back again. They know how to get back to Nationals.”

With only one loss in the regular season, Tempe tore through the Red Mountain Warthogs and the Back Bay Sharks in the Pacific South to return to the National Quarterfinals once again.

Coach Faasoo has found the right mix of play that suits his club’s strengths. Whether it be a heavy dose of forwards up front or use their speed outside with the back three, the Old Devils have balanced plan of attack. According to Faasoo, the key, “recipe for success last year and this year has been fitness. We are pretty well conditioned. Everybody pitches in their 100% effort... We have a very young team this year. From last year’s squad, some of our veteran guys have hung up their boots, and the younger ones have really stepped up and have done a great job filling in for the guys that left the team last year.”

“For them to beat Little Rock, [that is impressive]," said Faasoo of Dallas. "When we played Little Rock last year, they were a tough opponent. I have a feeling that the Dallas Reds are a heavy-dose forward kind of team. We’ll find out when the referee blows the whistle.”

Faasoo believes it is Tempe’s time to shine at the top of the DII. “I think we are due for it. We’ve been all the way to the Finals three times and if we are successful for the fourth time, I think our time is now and we are ready to put our name on the map of rugby in America.”

Life West Gladiators vs St. Louis Bombers
A lot has happened in the two-year existence of the Life West Gladiators. In the inaugural season last year, Life West challenged Old Blue for DIII supremacy in the National Championship, but fell 25-7. Seeking higher competition, the Gladiators moved up to DII and went undefeated in Northern California. After blowing out Sacramento and a decisive win over National Playoff stalwart Snake River in the Pacific North, who knows what will stop Life West’s upward trajectory.

Head coach Adriaan Ferris has brought a team-based concept to his players. Coach has taught adaptability to the club in order to shift style of play to match opposition.

"The coaching staff has worked hard on creating depth in all positions," said Ferris. "Should the need arise, we feel we have strong cover in all positions.”

Club culture and character in his players is a high priority for Ferris. “At the beginning of the season, a layer of selfishness existed... The players soon realized that things such as attendance, timeliness, effort, coachability, buy-in to the team culture, etc., are all vital to developing a unified team and more importantly, vital to their value as a team member... The guys know what is expected of them now. The players play for something bigger than themselves.”

This weekend’s match against the St. Louis Bombers may be the hardest test yet for the young club.

“We don’t know too much about St Louis, although we know that they are tough and tenacious,” Ferris stated. “They have a formidable pack and a dynamic backline. The comeback against the Kansas City side in the Frontier Final showed that they are a committed and determined outfit. It showed a heck of a lot of character to come back from 0-10 down to score four unanswered tries and win the game. We know that they will be up for the challenge and they have the belief to win the game. We need to be on top of our game, that is for sure.”

Life West is not looking further ahead than the St. Louis match.

“No team can win the Championship if they fall prior to the big event,” Ferris added. “We have done well by getting ourselves to this point of the season, but everything we have achieved this year counts for nothing unless we succeed in the challenge. Championships are not won by looking ahead.”

As the representative of the Frontier Conference, the St. Louis Bombers are making their first trip to the National Quarterfinals since stepping down from the Super League in 2009. Since going 7-1 in the Mid-America, the Bombers’ defense held the Glendale Raptors and the Kansas City Islanders to a total of 15 points in the conference playoffs. The rise in play starts with a core group of players that have been together for three-to-four years that have been dedicated to wanting to win, succeed, and train hard. The attitude towards fitness, conditioning, and athleticism has changed dramatically over the last year.

Traditionally, St. Louis has been a forwards-oriented team with a dominant pack, but this year has brought some balance.

“This year, we have been fortunate enough to have some really good backs and have some great depth in the backs which is why we’ve switched to a more expansive play," said St. Louis coach Ben Meyers. "We try to be efficient with our rucks and try use the width of the field with our forward runs. Expand it to one side of the field and use our backline to swing it back.”

Fitting in this new system, prop Alex Ochoa and hooker Dave Klug anchor the pack, and flyhalf Mark Menne has come of age and is deadly with his athleticism and speed. Unfortunately, the back three suffered significant injuries to fullback Will Latham and wing/fullback Matt Skarin in conference championships.

Coach Meyers is expecting a really tough match against Life West. “It seems like they have beefed up their program significantly since last year where they did very well. Our forwards are preparing for a very heavy hitting match and our backs know they have their hands full with some of guys they have in their backline out there.” Now, it’s up to the players to compete and Meyers know they can succeed. “Over the last three years, they have done the work together. They know each other, they each other’s play, and they want to get out and put their body on the line. They want to work hard and get the victory.”