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Eastern Regional Headlines D1AA Playoff April

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Eastern Regional Headlines D1AA Playoff April

Jaxon Stokley looking to pass for SHSU. Troy Tanzer photo.

The spring D1AA season is coming to a head with two playoffs this weekend, another next weekend, and a weekend of bowl games and a championship at the beginning of May.

In Florida, the semifinals kick off with St. Thomas (8-0) taking on Florida State (5-3). The seedings hinged on the FSU vs South Florida game, in which USF won 39-34 to budge ahead at 5-2-1. That sets up USF vs Florida for the other semifinal. The final will be a week later, with teams from Florida slated to play in bowl games in Houston as part of CRAA's Finals Weekend May 4-5.

On the West Coast, we will be waiting a week before finding out who goes to the CRAA final. California North champs American River will take on NCRC winners Western Washington in one semifinal, while California South champs University of San Diego will place California Norther runners-up San Jose State in the other. The finals and 3rd-4th games will be Sunday, all played at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif. 

The winner of that playoff will play the winner of the Eastern Regional final, which is this coming weekend. Lonestar champs Sam Houston State face off with Heart of America winners Iowa State.

Texas-Iowa Showdown

It has been a few weeks since these teams played games in anger, so the buildup on the training field is crucial for both. However, you have to play games, as well.

"The way our season is structured, we finished at the end of February in the Conference Championship," said SHSU Head Coach Ramon Serrano, who said his team learned some harsh lessons in last year's Eastern Regional final, and were eager to rectify what they didn't get right. "We built this year's schedule to include three out-of-state opponents with recent successes in order to prepare for challenging opponents such as Iowa State."

Playing Florida State, Southern Nazarene, and Alabama were good tests for the SHSU boys, but there is also the spring move to 7s to worry about. They've been working a lot on 7s as well, bouncing between the two as needed.

"The main focus is 15s with ISU looming," said Serrano.

For Iowa State, they wanted more games but bad weather and cancelations has made that difficult.

"The goal of the buildup to this match was to get guys' bodies right over the winter and then load up with as much rugby as possible, 15s or 7s," said Head Coach Ant Frein. "We have an incredibly young roster with 20.1 years old being the average age right now, so getting guys into the gym to develop physically was a huge emphasis in the buildup. The other side of the youth is that these guys just needed reps playing rugby. We have been aggressive, such as going to Bermuda to get game time, and breaking things down to the basics and building back up through the matches we have been able to play."

Still the time between regular conference play and this playoff period can be difficult to navigate.

Mutual Respect

These two teams know each other well. They played in last year's Eastern final, with Iowa State holding on to a 36-29 victory.

Dramatic Comeback Falls Just Short and Iowa State Beats SHSU

"Ramon and I both took over at roughly the same time in 2017/2018 and met in the postseason in 2019 being in same side of the bracket in 15s and 7s," said Frein. "It has been fun to follow them and meet in the postseason every year that was not canceled due to COVID. I think Ramon runs an awesome program and has similar relationships with his players as I do mine, so it is hard not to be a fan of them when you see that first-hand. That was particularly evident when the two clubs met up in San Jose after we had won the 7s title last year, just class all the way around. I feel confident in saying whichever team comes out on top, the other will be cheering them on in the Final."

"Both teams always seem to find each other in the postseason since 2019," added Serrano. "The consistency has a lot to do with Anthony and how he's guided his team year-in and year-out. They have been a great group to meet up with and support each season, players are familiar with each other and hoping we can keep this annual match going forward given how youthful both clubs are."

Star Power

There are several excellent rugby players in this playoff game. Jaxon Stokley has been a massive influence on the SHSU program at center and has higher-level potential. ISU lock Alex Geisert is a monstrous presence in the pack for the Cyclones; you don't often get a conference MVP from the second row, but you did this year.

"Both of them are incredible players but also incredible people," said Frein. "I know there is a lot respect from my seat on Jaxon’s game and how he handles himself. It is rare in the current climate of college athletics you get to see a player like Jaxon multiple times but also meet off the field a couple of times and he’s a class kid. I think fans in attendance are going to in for a treat watching Stokley and AG go at it one last time as I feel comfortable saying they are two of the top players in college rugby. 

The Game Plan

There's really nothing secret about this game. The teams, as we noted above, know each other pretty well. The game plan, in the end, is to execute. Perhaps one more piece of advice is ... don't be enticed away from what made you successful.

"The biggest thing for us is sticking to the game plan and playing loose," said SHSU's Serrano. "In last year's match, we fell off the wagon as far as the game plan went and quickly fell in a hole in the first 37 minutes. For us to have an opportunity to succeed, we have to be disciplined on defense and trust the process of our shape. Execution at a high percentage is a must, and knowing we aren't going to hit home runs on every strike. We do need to make them adjust to what we like to do and create opportunities in open play. 

Frein has a similar thought.

"I think the key for us to having success in this game is just remaining comfortable being ourselves," said the Iowa Sate coach. "We have a handful of guys remaining from last seasons runs in the playoffs that have been great setting the tone mentally and emotionally in training. We really need to embrace that our style of play is a slow burn and we are not going to win this match in the 30th minute. We need to stay honest to our assignments and execute for 80 minutes to have success at this stage in the season.

But they do have to deal with what the other team brings.

"Sam Houston is about as physical freaky of a side as you’re going to find in the country," said Frein. "They have home run hitters up and down their roster so we really need to accept that they are going to test our defense in ways we have not been tested yet and their defense is going to try to make decisions for us offensively. We have to trust our processes and know that just like we are not going to win the game in the 30th minute; we are not going to lose the game in the 30th minute. Stick"

Being big is how SHSU will counter Iowa State.

"We knew they wanted to play big. I believe the strategy for ISU is close to what it was last year: big ball runners, and big boots for territory putting us under pressure. I feel like they execute that very well, and it's a testament of their success in the Heart of America Conference and postseason. The backs complement with pace and spot-on tackles. They were able to stifle our attack for the most part in last year's matchup."

The Eastern Regional Final is April 13 at 3PM Central Time in Des Moines, Iowa. Live stream is here>>. It is also embedded below.