ACRL Down to Rivalry Weekend
ACRL Down to Rivalry Weekend
Sometimes it all just falls into place.
Some years ago the Atlantic Coast Rugby League (ACRL) decided they wanted to make sure that the season ended in the right way, and at the same time give incentive for weaker teams to pitch-up on the final weekend.
So this final weekend in the ACRL is rivalry weekend, where the records get thrown out (at least sometimes). NC State visits North Carolina, and Virginia Tech visits Virginia. But even better than that, we’ve got a season finale between the two remaining undefeated squads. Maryland travels to Clemson for a clash of 5-0 teams, with the winner getting 1st place and a date with the SCRC winners at the ACRC Bowl Weekend November 22 in Charlotte, NC.
For Maryland, Head Coach Jeff Soeken is extremely muted about his team’s success. This may be because it’s time for Mid-Terms at Maryland, reducing the time his squad has been together. Maybe its because he has been shifting around combinations all year trying to find the perfect combination. Maybe it’s because the addition of highly-regarded recruit Ben Cima, the USA U20 flyhalf and Gonzaga product (we’ll say that a few times this article), forced an adjustment to the game plan that still needed tweaking. Whatever it is, Maryland, despite being 5-0 in the ACRL with an average score of 63-6, has work to do.
“It’s always hard to project for a club sports team who will be your players and where they will play,” said Soeken. “We had to move guys and reach out to find players to fill positions. We were looking for the right guys at wing almost all season long.”
He may have found the right combination now. John Davis was switched to scrumhalf and has done well there. Scrumhalf Josh Marotske is now on one wing, with the redoubtable Matt Reilly on the other. With Cima, fullback-turned-center Kenny Rothmann, and another Gonzaga product and Ben’s older brother, Matius Cima, the threequarter line seems set.
“We have great interior backs, but we’ve needed the fast guys to finish it off,” said Soeken.
Up front Maryland’s top eight is strong. They have enjoyed consistent performances from the front row. The big question was whether they could fill in for an injury at hooker, but Parker Embree jumped into that role and did superbly, handling the grunt work and covering the field well. Breyson Boozer is a big, tough lock who sets the tone, while transfer (and Gonzaga product) Joe Whalen is a massive addition.
To keep the team sharp and to raise their standard, Soeken has had the Terps play tough opponents on off weekends. They played and lost to both Navy and Kutztown, but both of those games produced some good moments, and some good lessons. It’s a contrast to Clemson, which has seen their players play no games on off weekends.
“We’re coming in fresh,” said Head Coach Justin Hickey. “We just had fall break, and now going into first training of the week we are going through a lot o the same principles we started the season with. We know you don’t build your team on personnel, but the system, and the guys have done a good job with that. I also think that Maryland has improved a lot over the year and we expect them to be really comfortable and confident in their game plan.”
A year ago the two teams played what was essentially the ACRL championship game, and traded leads all 80 minutes until Clemson emerged victorious 35-27. Soeken remembers a handful of lost lineouts and scrums that made the difference, and Hickey doesn’t disagree that the teams are very close.
“If we’d kept playing the lead could have kept changing,” he said. “They have a lot of weapons, but we feel like we do, too. Over the last two years we underwent a bit of an identity crisis. We lost a couple of leaders and it was difficult to find that guy who was that commanding presence. But we’ve found him now and that has helped.”
That would be lock forward Jimmy Rippert. The fourth-year second row has played extremely well at lock and has also established himself as the soul of the Tigers.
“He sets expectations and the attitude,” said Hickey. “And as he’s getting better and better as a leader, he’s getting better and better as a player, too.”
A product of (wait for it …) Gonzaga HS, Rippert was a high school teammate of Matius Cima. Think that’s a nice story? How about the fact that Rippert’s younger brother, Tommy, is also playing for Clemson, and was a Gonzaga teammate of Maryland flyhalf Ben Cima.
Clemson also gets sophomore No. 8 Jason Damm back from injury, and he will work closely with scrumhalf and Gonzaga product Ryan Gilroy at scrumhalf. Gilroy is another who sets the tone, arriving first at training and leaving last, he works as hard as anyone on the squad.
And so it comes down to a close game against good teams. Will the extra rest help Clemson, or will being tested by the likes of Navy and Kutztown have hardened Maryland? Have the Terps found the right formula out wide? Is Clemson improved enough to repeat the eight-point victory they won a year ago?
Likely this game will come down to kicking. Fullback Aaron Keers is a strong kicker for Clemson, and he will need to be, because at flyhalf for Maryland, Ben Cima is as good as they come. And that was before Australia national team kicking coach Damien Hill ran a few sessions with the Terps on punting, goalkicking, and kick positioning. Soeken might secretly hope his players don’t all think they can kick now, but certainly if Clemson commits penalties within 45 meters of their line, they will be in jeopardy of giving up three points.
And three points might just be enough.