The DII Men's College Semifinals couldn’t more starkly different, as one is a repeat match-up of teams who’ve been highly ranked all season, and the other is between two Cinderellas who’ve emerged from unranked obscurity.
Towson and Salisbury are making a new tradition – playing each other once in the fall regular season, once in the spring conference playoffs and once a long ways away from Maryland in the National Semifinals. The exercise usually ends up with the same result – a Salisbury win. But Towson has come close.
This year, though, Towson didn’t expect to be back in the Final Four. They went through an unsuccessful coaching change in the spring before Donald Stone stepped back into the head coaching role. Plus, they lost a lot of players from last year’s team.
“I’m very surprised that we’re here. We graduated seven starters from last year’s final four, including some All American candidates, so coming into this year, I knew we had d decent program, but I wasn’t sure how we’d do,” said Stone.
“I’m a little surprised that we’re doing as well as we’re doing. We have a young team with a lot of sophomores, so I’m very pleased at how our guys stepped up given how many guys we lost last year.”
The Sharks, led by flyhalf Nick Kuhl, favor a heavy kicking game. So luckily for Towson, the area where they have a lot of seniors is in the back three – Mark Magas, Sean Barney and Travis Kumar. They also have a stud in No. 8 Pat McKenna, who could feature in the counterattack.
“He’s a great runner,” said Stone of McKenna. “He’s the best guy in the lineout. He’s just fantastic, and he’s really picked up his game.”
Salisbury is looking for the program’s second National Title. Salisbury won it all in 2004 and has made it to the Final Four numerous times, including in 2010, when UW-Whitewater won it all.
Whitewater was knocked off last year by juggernaut and eventual champion Lindenwood, who beat Salisbury in the final, and the Warhawks were expected to make another title run this year. But they ran into Minnesota Duluth in the quarterfinals, losing 43-17.
That result has Duluth looking like a real contender, despite the fact that the Northern Lights champs didn’t even make the Midwest playoffs last season, let alone Nationals. Duluth’s semifinal opponent, IUP, also failed to make Nationals last year.
“We’ve been playing really well. We had a big recruiting class about three years ago, so most of our players are in their third year of college rugby now, so it’s starting to click,” Duluth coach Jeremy Katchuba said, explaining his team’s turnaround.
“We’ve gotten quite a few new players, too. We went from a team that was probably averaging between 18-21 players a practice to now we’re getting between 30-35, so just numbers and we’ve got a lot of good athletes that have put in the time. They’ve been working really hard this spring. I think fitness is helping us out a lot.”
Two of Duluth’s standouts are in the back row – openside Derrek Van Klein and No. 8 Jake Luetgers. “They’re just big horses. They’re athletic,” said Katchuba. “Jake is probably the most athletically talented player that I’ve coached at UMD, and Derrek Van Klein’s nickname is Diesel. He’s got a high work rate.”
IUP also features a senior-laden bunch of guys who've just been working hard towards a common goal for a long time.