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Two of the most dominant clubs in DII, Towson and Salisbury, will battle Saturday for the 2014 Potomac conference championship in Severna Park, Md. The clubs have a storied rivalry throughout the years, with the Sharks holding the majority of the victories, especially in the regional and national playoffs.
This year, Towson has the edge, winning the league match at Salisbury’s home pitch. It was a close physical game, in which Coach Don Stone’s team employed a balanced attack en route to a 32-21 victory. Salisbury scored first, but Towson answered soon after and didn’t look back. The Tigers held Salisbury’s potent attack to one try in the second half, while never relinquishing the advantage behind two tries from their backline.
Since 2010, when he took over the head coaching duties for Towson, Coach Stone has brought the program great success and national recognition. However, the biggest monkey on his back is the team from the eastern shore of Maryland
Although the Tigers have two regular season wins against Salisbury in Stone’s tenure, the postseason is a whole other animal. Whether in the conference finals or the national semifinals in Utah, the Tigers have not been able to get over that hump.
Towson is riding high this season after going undefeated and being ranked second in the nation by Rugby Today. The Tigers have averaged a total of 61 points per game and a margin of victory of 47 per game. That’s not just dominating the competition, that’s pulverizing it.
Coach Stone has preached balance this season and doesn’t want his team to be characterized as a forwards-heavy club or purely backs-oriented.
“It’s a combination of possession, finesse, and good skills. We have really been working on our passing. I don’t know if I have seen a better passing team that we’ve played in the last year or two than the team I have now. We are very skill-oriented and we try to keep possession.
“We are a balanced team. We think of all 15 players as being rugby players. We ask our forwards to pass as well as the backs, and we ask the backs to tackle as well as the forwards. I think our team success is built upon all 15 positions and not being strong in one particular area.”
Flyhalf Vince Francescangeli, scrumhalf Eric Sweeney, and eightman Pat McKenna lead Towson on the pitch. Francescangeli had a chance to go to Arkansas State or Life, but chose to play for Towson. Sweeney is an expected All-American this year and one of the best scrumhalfs in DII. And McKenna is a true field general who leads by example and whose fundamentals are fantastic.
The impact players in the club are tough inside center John Schuberth and physical second half replacement Cyril Plummer. The forwards operate as a cohesive unit and are anchored by front row bruisers Tyler Honeycutt, Jason Lairia, and Brad Rockstroh.
The fifth-ranked Sharks are determined to reestablish that they are the force in the conference and nationally. Salisbury has won three-straight conference titles and reached the DII National Championship the last three years, winning in 2013 against the University of Minnesota-Duluth. This year, the Sharks outslugged each of their opponents, except for the one blemish against this weekend’s foe.
Traditionally known as a team that excelled in the kick and chase game, Coaches Doc Davis and Bill Creese have emphasized basics, ball control, and possession this year. Hallmarks of the program have always been physicality, speed, and the ability to wear down their opponent with their fitness.
Team captain and All-American Scotty Wheeler has a nonstop motor and is the driving force of the club. Four-year starter John Capobianco, who has adjusted to flyhalf this year after playing fullback for three seasons is the back captain, and he's taken on the challenge of a new position admirably.
Prop Garrett Roden, inside center Mike Mullens, and outside center Nick Rodriguez have stepped up this year to make a significant contribution to the club. To fill the void at kicker, wing Matt Elasser has taken to the role easily and shown the coaches that he is reliable under pressure.
The most recent loss to Towson is still on Coach Creese’s mind. “We have to do a better job at not making mistakes and staying controlled when we have the ball. I watched that game back, and for 80 minutes of the game, we probably had the ball for 60-plus. That’s unusual for us for the amount that we kick. We were on their side of the field the whole time. We didn’t need to kick. “
“We made four crucial mistakes and paid for all four of them immediately. We need to be smarter with the ball and don’t get as frazzled down near the goal line. We were down there a lot and didn’t capitalize. Eliminate some of those mistakes and I feel pretty good about going into the game.”
Creese believes the key to the game will be who takes advantage of the other club's miscues. “Everything was so close, our score lines were so close. It’s going to come down to whoever makes the least amount of mistakes. One mistake you can go from on your two to a try. That’s how it was when we played them. We were in own their zone putting it in, boom, kick and they scored. I think we got to be smart, play our style, and see what happens.”
"We certainly know Salisbury well enough. We know what they are going to do. We know their strengths and weaknesses,” Coach Stone said. “I‘m sure they are sitting on the eastern shore trying to figure out our strengths and weaknesses. It’s just going to be the team that has the better execution of their game plan. Any given game depends on how well you execute. I think the team who executes the best will win the game.”
The winner of the final earns an automatic bid in the DII National Playoffs and will play in Salisbury, Md. against the winner of the New England Wide or Colonial Coast. The runner-up will have a play-in game versus the runner up of the Cardinals Conference. The winner will then travel to James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va. and play the champion of the Great Lakes.