The DI-A final features two very talented, deep teams seeking their program's first-ever 15s National Championship. At about 9pm ET in Greensboro, NC, the National Title drought will end for either St. Mary’s College of California or Life University.
St. Mary’s has been chasing the dream a lot longer than Life. The Gaels have a long, storied history, which includes a coach in the United States Rugby Hall of Fame (Pat Vincent coached St. Mary’s from 1968-1983), but they’ve perpetually lived in Cal’s shadow.
Life, on the other hand, has only had an undergraduate program for three seasons now. In the very early years of college national championships, the Running Eagles were able to compete with their graduate students, and Saturday will actually mark Life’s second college final appearance. The chiropractors-to-be lost to Cal in 1982 in Greeley, Colo.
But the players taking the field Saturday aren’t particularly concerned about the historical aspect of this game. They’re worried about each other.
From Life’s perspective, the Gaels who could cause the most trouble are props Jordan Bouey and Nick Wallace. As Eagle prospects, both have been coached by Life head man Dan Payne, who knows well the danger they, along with the rest of the St. Mary’s scrum, impose.
“Nick Wallace breaks a lot of tackles and Bouey is strong there as well,” said Payne. “The scrum is such an important part of the set piece as it is, but when you’re going against two props like they have, you’ve got to really look to neutralize it and focus on the things that can allow us to have some success and try to take some away from them.
“They’ve got two really good players there, two players that our team respects a lot and that I respect a lot, but we have a lot of confidence in the guys on our side of the ball, too, so it should be a good match-up to watch.”
The props on Payne’s side of the ball are Drew Ohmann and Zach Walker. The latter is another potential Eagle, while the former is an injury replacement for OJ Auimatagi.
Another area of concern for Life, outside of the obvious play makers – Garrett Brewer at flyhalf and Tim Maupin at fullback – is the Gael back row. Partially because injuries forced them into it, the Gaels have backs playing on the flanks. Bubba Jones has even been coming off the bench as a reserve flanker.
“They have some guys that are playing out of primary position, but because of that they bring a different skill set,” said Payne. “Their back row has the ability to be able to move the ball and carry the ball very well and be a little more elusive than a conventional back rower sometimes.”
Life has something similar. Glen Maricelli has primarily been a hooker during his college career, but he slid to No. 8 in the absence of injured Cam Dolan this year. Well under 6-feet, Maricelli doesn’t look the part in the back row, but he’s really quick and routinely has the highest work rate on the field.
With Maricelli working out so well at No. 8, Dolan moved to wing upon his return. At 6-6, the best lineout operator in college rugby is a mismatch for any wing. Dolan comes into the pack for lineouts, bumping former prop and current flanker Paris Hollis to the wing on that set piece.
So both team have match-ups all over the field and guys who can take the rock long distances for scores. This game could be decided by a lot of factors, and the fact that St. Mary’s flew over 2,500 miles to Greensboro, while Life drove a measly five hours, isn’t null.
Neither is the home-field advantage several Life players will have Saturday. Nine Running Eagles hail from the state of North Carolina, including Hollis and team captain Colton Cariaga, so Life will undoubtedly have more fans in the stands.
But fans, long-gone hall of fame coaches and postseason appearances from 40 years ago don’t make and break tackles or slot penalty kicks. Whoever excels in those areas will hoist the trophy Saturday.