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The Keystone final features West Virginia and Saint Joseph’s, two clubs itching to become the league champion. Neither team has been truly tested this year in conference action, as they have handily dispatched all comers in regular season play. Each team was impressive in their semifinal and outscored their opponent by at least 35 points. Saturday’s match at Mylan Park in Morgantown, W. Va. will be intriguing and a great display of DI-AA collegiate rugby.
The last time these two teams met was last September in a tight match, in which the Hawks edged the Mountaineers 14-13. St. Joe’s built a 14-3 half time advantage and held on for the victory after West Virginia missed its conversion attempt after a late try. A last ditch effort was thwarted by the Hawks. Although the Mountaineers did not defeat St. Joe’s last year, they did take home the conference title in 2013.
West Virginia comes in riding high off a 66-0 thrashing of Temple in the semifinals after claiming the Keystone's west division. The Mountaineers’ stellar defense only allowed three tries all season, while their attack amassed a total of 305 points.
“Our pack has been working very well. Our backs are very good at integrating them into our plays," said West Virginia coach Richard Glover. "Not only do we have good forwards, we are very good at placing them in the right places. We have a very strong set of forwards this year, some big boys who can break the line and we use them well.”
The forward pack is led by All American eightman Ryan Blythe. Coach Glover has relied on Blythe all season for his knowledge and guidance on the pitch as an on-field coach. The diamond in the rough this season is prop Brendan Kammerdeiner, a first-year former walk-on football player. He has has taken to the sport marvelously and serves as an anchor for the front row with his strength, leadership and work ethic. Flanker Derek Antonucci, known for his dreadlocks, is peaking at the right time and had one of his best games in the semifinal.
The backs are steered by captain and scrumhalf Kris Wilson. He has great vision that enables him to be a real danger as a passer and runner. Fullback Chris Mackenrodt leads the conference with 60 total points, but it’s his smart strategic kicking game that is his biggest asset. Being able to be a dependable kicker for points and able to pin teams back is key.
The main difference Coach Glover sees between this year and last year is the level of maturity of his club. “Last year, we won the league and we went to the playoffs and got absolutely destroyed by Kutztown. We had no experience behind us, no experience being a good team that’s a winning team. Whereas this year, we got that experience behind us. We no longer just panic and if things aren’t going our way, we force it and struggle. This year, we have a lot of mature players and a lot of leaders of the field to settle the team down and finish teams off and a strong fashion rather than going down to their standard instead. “
After dismantling each of their east division opponents during the regular season, St. Joe’s earned their ticket to the finals by dominating Pitt in the semifinal, 42-7. This season, the Hawks have scored an average of 54 points a game and have an average margin of victory of nearly 40 points.
Coach Dan Yarusso’s style of play is geared towards his backline. Coach Yarusso is confident because he, “feels [his] forwards can play like backs. They get around the field and move the ball really well.”
The captain of the team is junior eightman Adam Duignan, and he leads by example with work ethic and a physical style of play. Duignan has been the rock of the club throughout his career and has earned the respect of his teammates.
In the tight five, prop Mark Zatta is solid and can move for a big man, and hooker Tyler Kelley is physical and tough to bring down. Senior flanker Brendan Murphy is rugby smart and has a great feel for the game. Lock Ryan Stickno and hooker Matt Zebrowski have made tremendous contributions in forward play, especially in the lineouts.
Flyhalf Jimmy Wolfer is the star of the backline and is one of the most dynamic players in the conference. Fullback Dan Deal has been a threat to score from anywhere on the field and is the top try scorer on the team. Wing Nick Hopkins has continued to develop into a veteran leader in the backs this season.
Considering the distinction between last year and this year, Coach Yarusso said, “the team is one year older as we were still a young team last year. I think we are also a much fitter team, which suits our style of play.”
On the difference between the two clubs, Glover said, “St. Joe’s program has a lot of rugby smart players whereas we’re more developed on a team plan. We get a lot of wrestlers, footballers, soccer players in. Maybe that individual knowledge isn’t quite there yet as St. Joe’s might be, but collectively, we are a very well drilled and organized team.
“I think we are all aware of the scores we’ve been putting up. We haven’t really been put on the cost just yet. We are expecting a very fast paced, aggressive attack for St. Joseph’s. We will be very strategic with their kicking. The last time we met, Jimmy Wolfer was very good at putting kicks behind our defense and keeping us on the back foot. We are expecting a very high paced, quick backline play from St. Joe’s and we know they have some big forwards as well.”
Coach Yarusso shares the same outlook on the game. “I expect this to be a close game where both teams will be tested and put under pressure," he said. "I think the team that makes the least amount of mistakes and can stick to their game plan will come out on top. I really want to see our guys come out to a fast start and keep the pressure on them.”
The conference champion will represent the Keystone in the ACRC Bowl Series in Charlotte, NC on November 21-22 and receive an automatic bid into USA Rugby's DI-AA playoffs in the spring.