Second-ranked Minnesota-Duluth and sixth-ranked Winona collide Saturday in Duluth, Minn. Both teams have been crushing teams in the Northern Lights conference. Duluth has outscored its opponents 331-15, and Winona has outscored its 254-24.
Duluth made it to the National Championship game last year and fell short against Salisbury. The Fighting Penguins lost just one starter, so their dominance is as expected. Winona, on the other hand, finished fourth in the Northern Lights.
The Warriors have a new coach, Jeff Noe, who's revived the program.
“We have a different mentality. We have a pretty good freshman class coming in, a couple of dedicated guys. That helps,” said Winona captain Brandon Schweitzer.
“I think it’s mainly our coach, though. He’s brought a new commitment and drive into the program here, and he’s developed everybody as rugby players far more than I have in my nine years of playing rugby.”
In preparation of playing a very large pack, Noe has his team working specifically on fringe defense this week.
“We’ve been practicing staying low. The first two men off the ruck have been practicing staying 18 inches off the ground this week to deal with their eight-man, to deal with their flankers picking quick,” said Schweitzer.
“They’re a great team. They have a lot of hype behind them, but I’m hoping that with how much work we’ve put in and the dedication that I’ve seen from our players that we can come out and play some smash-mouth rugby. We both know it’s going to be a hell of a game. I just hope they’re ready, because I know we are.
“We’ve got to hit them before the gain line and play our game. We scored 82 points last week against Bemidji and didn’t have our starting guys in. Our offense, it’s going to work, it’s going to happen. We just have to be patient, and the team that wins this week is going to be the team with the best defense.”
While Duluth is pigeonholed as a forward-oriented team for good reason, the Penguins have added a layer to their attack with new flyhalf Trace Bolstad.
“Obviously, we learned a lot in the championship game last year, so we’re adding new wrinkles this year. You can do that as you get a team that’s played together for two, three years and you’re not in a development phase,” said Duluth coach Jeramy Katchuba.
“I think it’s just a natural growth. We’ve added [Bolstad] this year. He’s given us a little more versatility in our kicking game, but our bread and butter is still moving things through our forwards.”
Saturday’s contest might as well be a playoff game, as neither Duluth nor Winona are in danger of losing again the rest of the conference season, and there is only one at-large bid on offer in DII.