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The expectations have changed at Iona. The Gaels racked up an 11-2 record last fall, their first in the Liberty Conference. So when UMass comes to town Thursday for the season opener streamed live on ESPN+ at 5pm ET, the home team is expected to come out with an easy win.
But the Minutemen are well coached. Last fall, just 15 points separated Iona and UMass, with the Gaels winning 32-17 in October, when both teams were in midseason form. Thursday, the penultimate day of a month only newly utilized in college rugby, neither will be.
Iona starts the season with a notable injury. Rudy Scholz Award finalist Mike Scarcella suffered a broken vertabrae during the All-American camp this summer. The massively physical center is doing well and will remarkably return to the pitch this season, but he won't see action against the Minutemen.
The Gaels are bolstered by the return of scrumhalf Connor Buckley and No. 8 Santi Mascolo. Buckley is just a sophomore, but arguably the best scrumhalf in the country already. He's a livewire and exceptionally skilled. Mascolo, who spent the summer with the U20s, is a big, strong, consistent player.
An intriguing new addition is Watson Filikitonga, the Northern California sophomore transfer. The 6'3", 210-pounder played high school ball at Peninsula Green before going to the College of San Mateo to play running back. He'll help fill the void left by Scarcella, and when the veteran is back, the two could form an imposing midfield.
Iona is now two seasons removed from competing in the Rugby East, one of college rugby's blue blood conferences built on the backs of some of the nation's most storied programs. Gaels head coach Bruce McLane helped forge the Liberty, a massive league formed on convenience and geography. But the move wasn't to evade competition, as the Gaels back up the UMass match with consecutive contests against Navy and Army.