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After a four-month break, the Mid-Atlantic DI club season gets back on track with four games this weekend.
Five teams remain in with a shot at finishing 1st in this highly competitive league, with leaders Baltimore-Chesapeake essentially tied with PAC, the Norfolk Blues in third having played two fewer games, and Schuylkill River in 4th have played one fewer.
(Pittsburgh Harlequins are 5th, and a little behind this leading group. They will need some help to get to 1st.)
"I thought we had a good strong finish in the fall and the guys were really positive about it," said Schuylkill River Head Coach Bill Jalbert. "The guys worked very hard over the break maintaining their fitness, and that was good because we weren't putting in all that extra work in training."
Like with other clubs, warmup matches for Schuylkill River have been rare because of the weather. Matched up against Raleigh in Raleigh, the Philadelphia club will have to hit the ground running.
Facing the sternest test might be 7-3 Potomac Athletic Club, which hosts the 5-4 Pittsburgh Harlequins.
Coach Ben Wiedemer said his squad looks better now than in the fall, when they were hit with injuries and several player getting married or having kids, thus putting them out of commission for a while.
"It is difficult to get guys switched back on," cautioned Wiedemer. "We were lucky enough to have a hit-out this past weekend with [DII power] Rocky Gorge. However, with all the snow, training has been tough for many of the east coast team."
Wiedemer said player development and continuity is hurt by the long winter break, but he recognizes that teams in the Northeast have the same issues.
Now with every team in the league playing 14 games, much of the schedule starts in March.
"It would seem that the games that have carried over from the fall are even more important with the new playoff format," said Wiedemer. " We have Pittsburgh, who we lost to in the fall, this weekend so we are not taking it lightly. This is no way to ease into the season, we have told our players that at this point we can't wait to improve, we need to play like we are in mid-season form."
Norfolk is the team with the most to do this spring, as the Blues have six games to play, starting with NOVA at home, a game they should win.
The Blues got a couple of warmup games, which they lost, but they were testing some new players.
"This weekend will be the first time I have most of our top players available," said Coach Chris Porter. "Every game has to be taken seriously or you let yourself open to taking a loss. We are preparing for NOVA the same way we do for every team. This spring we are continuing to focus on putting pressure on our opponents offensively and defensively."
This spring Cecil Garber joins the Blues back row with Fred Wintermantel and Kevin Mott to form an effective loose forward unit. Jacob Sprang, Sam Johnson, and Brett Keyes are all new players who could see time. But there will be little opportunity to just try guys out.
"We are approaching each weekend like a playoff game and our veterans enjoy playing under this kind of pressure," said Porter.
And Baltimore-Chesapeake is precariously on top of the heap, for the moment. They host Maryland.
"With the carry-over of the schedule we tried to maintain a schedule that was new to us," said Coach Steve Elliott. "It was successful in one area; in years past midwinter training was individual and not particularly skill-development-based. This year, we did group work and followed a skill development format. It will continue to evolve and improve as we figure out how best to manage a nine-month-plus schedule."
Elliott called the weather for playing outdoors "horrific" in the early going. But, he added, it's been the same for everyone, so while the Brumbies might be undercooked, so is everyone else.
Looking ahead, the March 15 match between Norfolk and Baltimore-Chesapeake could possibly decide the league, although the two teams have a return engagement March 29. If one of those clubs sweeps that series, the other is in trouble and the winner has reason to celebrate. PAC has one of the easier runs for the top teams, although their March 22 clash at Schuylkill River could be problematic.
Mid-Atlantic March 8 Games
Maryland Exiles @ Balt.-Chesapeake
NOVA @ Norfolk Blues
Schuylkiill River @ Raleigh Vipers
Pitt Harlequins @ PAC