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Siena Moved From NCR D1AA to D1 Playoffs; Here's Why

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Siena Moved From NCR D1AA to D1 Playoffs; Here's Why

Siena huddles up in 2021. Ollie Laseinde photo.

In what is almost a microcosm of how the college landscape continues to change, Siena College will be moved from NCR's D1AA postseason to the higher-level D1 postseason pathway.

Located in the Capital Region of New York State, Siena has burst onto the scene in the last couple of years. This is a function of the fact that the program coordinator, Greg Matthew, works in the college's recruiting office and has a deep knowledge of what financial assistance students might be able to get at the school. During the COVID shutdowns, when recruiting was done virtually, Matthew set to work finding potential students in the Capital Region and also overseas who played rugby.

What Happened to Make Siena College Rugby So Dominant So Fast

That's how a small college ended up dominating the NCR Small College Challenge Series, winning that playoff. Observers, including this editor, suggested Siena could have been bumped up to the small college championship, the Cohen Cup, given their obvious strength, but it didn't happen. Meanwhile, NCR did indeed move some D1AA teams into a D1 playoff last fall, and they did that mid-season.

This year, Siena bypassed the Small College Championship level and also the D2 level to compete in the Liberty Conference D1AA league. Things didn't change, though. Siena has been winning games by massive margins nonetheless.

NCR's Men's D1 Commissioner, Brad Dufek, had been keeping an eye on all of this. Siena had completed the survey NCR uses that puts a score on a program's status on campus. The survey is similar to one developed within USA Rugby some years ago for women's programs. If you get money from the school, or get some other perks, you get points, whereas if you have no support or volunteer coaches, you don't get the points. The system works relatively well, but it can't cover every different permutation of how college rugby teams are run.

Siena, Dufek told GRR, scored a little below the threshold that would force them into D1. Siena is not strongly supported by the school, but it does have a program coordinator employed by the University, albeit not for sports. There has been a nebulous, official, but not really official, oversight situation whereby Siena Rugby is under the Athletics Department, but more because student activities was not equipped to run it.

No full-time coaches, no medical ... Siena just didn't check all the boxes.

Well ... aside from winning games by 90 points. 

But as the season began it became clear Siena, despite having skipped two divisions, might still not be in the right competition. We spoke with Greg Matthew, the program coordinator and he acknowledged that they really didn't know where they would fit this year.

But, there have been some changes. The team now gets two short strength & conditioning slots per week. That's an additional perk, if a small one. The University does have Siena Rugby on their Athletics Department website. And Athletics Director John D'Argenio did contact Dufek in an attempt to wrap his brain around a very confusing landscape. D1AA, NCR D1, D1A ... what did it all mean?

D'Argenio just needed some information, but he has also signaled a bit more of an interest in direct oversight and support from the Athletics Department. Did those small changes bump Siena into the same survey score as, say, Mary Washington? Adding Strength & Conditioning support alone increases Siena's score, and the team has its own rugby field, which is a crucial benefit. But nothing will change the fact that Siena is a very small school with a total undergraduate enrollment of under 4,000, less than half of whom are men.

Small shifts, then, in the team's status on campus, along with results that indicate Siena probably doesn't fit in with the club-central aspect of D1AA, prompted NCR's move.

Siena will continue to play in its Liberty D1AA league, but when the postseason starts, the Saints will have to face off with a D1 team in a play-in to make the NCR playoffs.

For Matthew and Head Coach Jaco Visser, this changes things a little, but in the long-term not so much.

"We always had the desire to be D1," Matthew told GRR. 

NCR has taken a pretty strong line on school-supported teams, even if those teams have to play in lower division conferences because of geography. Thus Southern Nazarene will not be in the D2 playoffs and four 2021-22 D2 teams were put into a D1 conference of school supported teams (the Big Rivers). But this Siena episode shows it's not always easy to predict what will prompt the next shift.