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The quarterfinals for the D1A National Collegiate Championships are set for this Saturday and Sunday and nine of the most competitive clubs in the nation are set to clash. St. Mary’s will be looking for third championship in a row, but have the likes of Life, Lindenwood, Arizona, Utah, Indiana, Davenport, Cal Poly, and Air Force in the hunt to claim the title.
Since the Cal Poly versus Air Force was postponed because of the weather last weekend, both teams will travel and play at St. Mary’s on Saturday then the winner will face the Gaels on Sunday. At first, a D1A committee ruled that Air Force would advance based on ranking, but an appeal overruled the decision resulting in Saturday’s match.
Air Force is a smart, adaptive side that has used its tenacity, aggressiveness, and teamwork to achieve success this season. Impact players like center Benjamin Burmester, lock Grigor Kerdikoshvili, and flanker Elliott Higgins have led on and off the field for the Zoomies.
Head coach Denny Meridith said that the willingness to instill a new culture of play has been key this season. “A key strong commitment to each other and a strength of character reflective of the spirit of rugby [has been the difference]. The quarterfinals will be highlighted by intensity and experienced play that will be a challenging for the full 80 minutes.”
For the game on Saturday against Air Force, Cal Poly brings strong forward play with expansive attack highlighted by flyhalf Keli'i Dominguez, center Alex Wormer, No. 8 and captain John Joe Murphy, prop Nathan Sylvia and hooker Eddie McFarland. The set piece has been excellent for the Mustangs, especially in the scrum and defensive lineouts limiting the attacking opportunities of the opposition.
In order for Cal Poly to advance to the semifinals, it will need to win on back-to-back games. The Mustangs will have to play at the top of the their game and come away unscathed with injuries. Head coach James Tesoriero said to survive the weekend and advance, his team “will need to get through a tough match versus Air Force with minimal injuries, and then recover quickly overnight to beat a tough St. Mary’s team. Our team has a strong respect for St. Mary’s, but feel we can beat them if we execute our gameplan effectively.”
A lot of changed since St. Mary’s D1A Championship over Life last June, but the winning spirit of the Gaels has stayed the same. With the loss of four All-Americans from the roster, the team as a whole has stepped up to challenge for another title. The Gaels bring big tempo rugby to the pitch with players that have a high skill set and are rugby IQ oriented.
The strength of the St. Mary’s backline is in the centers with Scholz Award Finalist Dylan Audsley and Mike McCarthy. In the forwards, senior captain Kevin O’Connor, Henry Hall, Vili Helu, and Dino Waldren do the dirty work and are a force from the front.
Head coach Tim O’Brien said that his club has been consistently improving at training and player leadership all year. As for this weekend, O’Brien stated. “We know Cal Poly well. They play a more complex and intelligent style than most teams. We know nothing about Air Force other than their first 20 minutes against Cal were stellar.” O’Brien would not comment on the road past this weekend letting his team’s play do the rest of the talking.
The winner of the St. Mary’s versus Cal Poly/Air Force game will advance to play the victor of Utah against Arizona. The Wildcats travel to the Utes on Saturday after defeating LSU last weekend. Arizona employs an up-tempo style with a young group that's growing each week. Captain and lock Cesar Davila leads the squad and and flyhalf Kyle Rogers and center Shane Dempsey are difference makers in the backline.
Against Utah, head coach Sean Duffy is expecting a good tough game. “There are lots of familiarity between the sides so it should be fun. Utah is a good well-coached side that we've seen before. Hooker Chad Gough is a strong player and they have a number of others to gameplan for. If we advance, it'll be because the guys played for each other, tackled, and stuck with the gameplan.”
On the other hand, Utah is an opportunistic club being patient and creating errors for the opposition, then taking advantage with a quick strike. The Utes are a small team relying on numbers for support, possession, and tackling. Chad Gough and Gabe Ruflin have stepped up with exemplary play and leadership on the field.
With the quarterfinal match against Arizona on Saturday, head coach Haloti Liava'a said, “Coach Duffy has done a terrific job with his boys. They have improved in every facet of the game and it's going to be a tough match for Utah. They are a fundamentally sound team with all players contributing to there success. If we can make our first tackles, win our set pieces, and starve Arizona possession, we'll have a better chance to be victorious.”