For the third year in a row, the East Coast and Empire conferences are squaring off in the first round of the playoffs. This year, the playoff is the American Collegiate Rugby Championship and the teams are Middlebury (East Coast Champ) and Stony Brook (Empire Champ). Middlebury is making the five-hour trek from Vermont to Long Island, NY Saturday because the Seawolves hold the higher seed.
The Empire’s won that higher seed by beating the East Coast in the postseason the last two years, even though the contests have been close. In the spring, St. Bonaventure slipped past Middlebury 29-28, and in 2012, Stony Brook edged Northeastern 24-22.
The coaches for both Middlebury and Stony Brook think their programs have been building toward this season, which has been exceptional for each. The Panthers swept the through the East Coast undefeated, winning every game by at least 16. Stony Brook went 8-0, and then after the conference championship was in hand, rested numerous starters in the final regular season game to go 8-1.
“Last year was a young team. We just didn’t have the experience in the playoffs, but those guys came back this year,” said Middlebury coach John Phillips, explaining his team’s success. “We’re a bit stronger mentally, and physically we’re bigger than last year. We’ve played some good rugby. But in the playoffs it’s a one off, so anything can happen.”
“I think this is one of the best sides we’ve put out in a long time,” Stony Brook coach Jerry Mirro said of his team.
Another boon to Middlebury’s success has been the breakout season of center Jake Feury. The former High School All American is a sophomore, and the brother of Penn State standout Blaze Feury, but he spent his freshman year kicking for the Panther football team. He led the East Coast in tries this fall and will be a key part of the plan to beat Stony Brook.
“I think he’s a boy in a man’s body. He’s a big, powerful runner, and he’s fitting in really good. He’s a good kid, and he loves his rugby,” said Phillips of Feury. “He’s a tough kid to stop, and I’m sure they’ll be gunning for him.”
“Real deal. Good player, and we’re fully aware of it and looking forward to the match, that’s for sure,” said Mirro of Feury. “We’ll make a little adjustment on him, because he is that kind of kid. He’s a game breaker. We’ll pinch him a little bit, put a little pressure on him and see how he reacts. There will be bodies on him for sure.”
Stony Brook has some potent backline talent of its own, with flyhalf PJ Abelein being the second-highest point scorer in the Empire, and outside center Brian Michel and fullback Jon Feldman being very dangerous attackers on the perimeter.
With potent backline players on both teams, Saturday’s contest might well be decided by which group of runners gets more ball.
“We’ve got a good backfield, but we’ve got to win ball first,” said Phillips. “That’s the name of the game.”