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Florida D1AA Final Pits Old vs New

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Florida D1AA Final Pits Old vs New

St. Thomas vs Florida from earlier in the season. Photo St. Thomas Rugby.

Florida’s D1AA league comes down to this Saturday as St. Thomas takes on Florida.

This is definitely an old-vs-new matchup with Florida being a club program that has been in action, and successful for a very long time. St. Thomas, on the other hand, is a quite new school-supported program with a paid coach and athletic-department status.

For St. Thomas, the story has been similar to that of other fledgling varsity programs; working their way through the divisions as the program builds numbers and experience. But it doesn’t take long for the results of training every day to show. Witness the St. Thomas results:

80-0 over North Florida
24-17 over Central Florida
51-12 over South Florida
73-0 over Florida International
84-0 over Florida Atlantic
31-12 over Florida State
52-17 over Florida
40-12 over Eckerd
Forfeit win over Florida State

The FSU forfeit was mostly around scheduling and budgets—FSU did not have the budget for two nights of hotel stay and thus needed either to get going very early, or a kickoff time that St. Thomas could not provide. (Note it’s close to an eight-hour drive from Tallahassee to Miami Gardens). There is a wide rugby backstory to this that we’ll get into some other time.

Florida did have a semifinal to play, beating South Florida 43-27. Earlier in the year the Gators had plenty of trouble beating USF, 33-29. But what was really on Florida’s minds was their loss to USF in last year’s semifinal.

“This was sweet revenge for last year’s defeat,” said longtime UF Coach Ken Simmons. “We’ve been working hard all season, but we’ve struggled with discipline.”

Penalties, said Simmons, have made games against South Florida, FAU (17-15), and Central Florida (17-16) much closer than they should have been.

On Saturday, they were a bit better in that regard. No. 8 and captain Louis Bollaerts made sure the Gators stayed the right side of the referee and kept to their structure.

“We played our best team game of the season,” said Simmons.

Ryan Duffy opened the scoring with a try within seven minutes, and Andrew Mortensen, Brian Stock, and Bollaerts also touched down. Martin Gentile scored two tries while Justo Olivero kept up his scoring touch (which he’s had all his career at Forida) added 13 points with the boot.

“It was team play and discipline that enabled us to have a solid win against USF,” said Simmons. “The only way to beat a very good St. Thomas is for us maintain our discipline and stay focused for the full 80 minutes. We do have some work to do, clean up the lineouts, fine-tune the scrums and defensive alignment, but the players are willing and able to do the work needed.”

“I think UF are not going to make it easy for us,” said St. Thomas Head Coach Gavin McLeavy. “Ken Simmons knows what he’s doing. If there’s a way to break us down he can break it down. We’ve prepped well this week, however. We’ve solidified a few things.”

A forfeited semifinal actually provided some rest time for a few injured players and McLeavy said while he welcomed the week off he knows it might stick in University of Florida’s craw—it usually is a two-sided coin when a team gets a bye (for whatever reason) to a final. Teams might welcome the rest, or they might feel like they needed the game.

Regardless, St. Thomas goes carry injuries into the final.

“We purposely built a deeper squad,” said McLeavy. “We rotated players throughout the season and we did that on purpose and as a result guys have worked their way into the team. I feel comfortable that those lads are there.” 

The game will be played as part of the FRU’s state finals weekend at the IMG Academy in the Sarasota area, which is pretty much equidistant between Gainesville and Miami.  And yes St. Thomas is certainly favored, but Florida (the D1AA league) has a history of providing us with surprises. This could easily be one.

Both teams, by the way, are slated to play bowl games against D1AA opposition at the CRAA Finals weekend. Likely one of those opponents will be Sam Houston State, and the other would be a team from the D1AA West Regionals. Florida teams don’t participate in the CRAA playoffs at the moment chiefly because of travel and budgetary issues.