Clemson has quietly been having a fantastic spring season. While Navy started out the ACRL slate with some resounding wins to become the favorite to win the league, the Tigers have put up some big scores lately and built a 4-0 league record. Saturday they beat two-time defending ACRL champs Maryland 59-23.
“It was a big monkey off our back, obviously. [Maryland] was our only loss last year,” said Clemson coach Justin Hickey, who wanted to shackle the Terrapin midfield led by Matias Cima. “We focused pretty hard on 9, 10, 12 going into the game and defended really well on the interior.”
Junior lock Shaun Rich, junior prop Max Simons and junior inside center Ben Coburn scored two tries each against Maryland. The Tigers dotted down nine in total, of which Junior flyhalf Chris Merlo converted seven.
The week prior, Clemson racked up 82 points against North Carolina. The Tigers’ first two conference matches were a little closer.
“We felt like we left a lot of points on the field against Virginia and Virginia Tech,” said Hickey. “We got into our stride against North Carolina and were able to kind of carry it over into the Maryland game.”
This is Hickey’s third year coaching Clemson, and the Tigers are on track to win the ACRL’s automatic bid to the DI-AA Sweet 16, if not the conference outright. What’s been the difference this season?
“When I got here three seasons ago, obviously a lot of the guys that are seniors now or juniors now were freshmen and sophomores,” said Hickey.
“We’ve kept to the same plan, same system. We’ve obviously evolved into it, but I think we’ve grown up. Where we’ve been kind of the smaller, scrappier pack. We’re now becoming the stronger, bigger pack and just as mobile, but starting to be physically grown up and digesting the system.”
While the junior class is accounting for a lot of the Tigers’ points this season, the small senior class, led by No. 8 Matt Fetty and flanker Tommy Evans, is providing leadership.
“It’s guys how have been here since I got here and were even leaders at the time as young guys,” said Hickey. “We’re getting a lot of pop form our backline scoring tries, but I think it’s a lot fo the intangibles that some of the seniors bring.”
Clemson has a week off, and then it’s a big game against NC State before taking on Navy and finishing off conference play against winless Wake Forest. Assuming the Tigers will beat the Demon Deacons, a win over The Wolfpack would clinch the ACRL playoff bid, and a win over Navy (who is opting to play for the Varsity Cup instead of a USA Rugby championship) would net the ACRL title.
“Our two main goals this year are to qualify for the national tournament and to win the ACRL,” said Hickey, “so the next few weeks give us the opportunity to knock those goals off.”