Perennial national DII college contenders Middlebury, runners up last spring and champions in 2007 and 2009, are now in DI, and have embraced the new challenge.
This past weekend Middlebury entered DI competition for the first time, and were edged 24-20 by University of Massachusetts.
It was a tough trial by fire for Middlebury, but one they needed.
“We’re happy= to be in DI and it was time,” said Head Coach John Phillips. “For our first game to be a league game, our guys played well. The guys just ran out of gas at the end.”
The early start of the DI league and school rules precluded much of a buildup for Middlebury, and it showed. The Middlebury forward pack is a small pack but did well to use that size to get into a better body position. But ultimately UMass were too powerful late.
“The game was tough and close the whole way through,” added Middlebury’s Brian Sirkia. “We knew we would be up against it, because we had only been together a week, and only four players that had started in the final against UW Whitewater started on Saturday, due to lots of key juniors going abroad and a strong senior class leaving. Our entire front row got their first start for the 1st XV on Saturday, and we still won all of our own scrums and I think we won two against the head.”
Ultimately, Sirkia added, “we were great in set pieces, and unorganized in open play. Obviously rugby requires a lot of team cohesion, and many of us had only been playing together for a week. All in all, for a team that just came together, we put in a solid effort.”
The teams traded scores back and for all afternoon, and Middlebury led 20-17 with seven minutes to go before the UMass forwards surged on for the winning score. Middlebury had one more shot at it, but knocked on near the UMass goal line.
In the end it was good news for both teams. Middlebury saw they could compete in DI, and with a little more time for their young players to get blooded, will do even better. UMass, full of talented underclassmen themselves, found plenty to feel good about in the result.
“We're feeling pretty confident,” said UMass officer Nik Wojtkielo. “We did beat the #22 team in the country and we think we can win more. We’ll just approach every team like they’re the #1 team.”
Wojtkielo said players are coming in from BC High and some other strong Massachusetts age-grade programs, and that is helping them. They got impact subs at prop and scrumhalf against Middlebury, and will be looking to that talent to come through throughout the fall.
“We do have a lot more to work on,” Wojtkielo said. “We need to be fitter, we struggled on defense at times, and we need to get better as a team. We will have our hands full with Northeastern.”
And Middlebury takes on Southern Connecticut, one of the top teams from the old MetNY union competition.
“We know it will be tough every week,” said Wojtkielo.