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Tennessee Hosts Lynx in Early-Season Clash

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Tennessee Hosts Lynx in Early-Season Clash

Tennessee is back at it with a tough season opener. Photo courtesy Tennessee Rugby.

The Lindenwood-Belleville Lynx begin their second season of rugby and first in DI with a meeting of longtime DI power Tennessee Friday at Tennessee Rugby Park.

It's a meeting of old and new, in the sense that Tennessee has been a strong college rugby program - as a club team - for decades, while Lindenwood-Belleville is still a new kid on the block - albeit one that is varsity. The coaches know each other well. Volunteers Head Coach Marty Bradley has been around a long time, and L-B Head Coach Pat Clifton knows pretty much everybody as he has been a rugby journalist for several years. 

The Lynx have been in training for some weeks and scrimmaged with a local men's club, a game in which Clifton was able to see some of what he had. This, however, will be their first official hit-out, and it's an important one. Lindenwood-Belleville is playing an independent DIAA schedule, and as such will rely on their performances throughout the fall to garner an at-large playoff berth.

"It's like the old college football seasons where you really need to win right from the start," said Clifton.

That doesn't mean the Lynx will win. They went deep into the DII playoffs, but struggled with depth as academics and other issues hurt the team's numbers. Clifton was running with a mostly freshman team, and this year has the luxury of more upper-classmen. They have five players over 21, which is a bit of a luxury. But those upper-classmen are fighting for positions with a new crop of recruits, and in some cases losing out on a starting position, or finding a new position. Reece Smith was a lock and flanker last season, but is now the team's flyhalf. One of the team's few on-campus recruits is Seif Shoukry, who walked on last year. The 6-4 native of Egypt showed some flashes last fall, and used 7s to blossom as a player. Clifton expects him to have a breakout year.

 Watch out also for Juan Pablo Aguirre. The former Argentina age-grade player moved to the USA with his family and enrolled at Lindenwood-Belleville. He is a little older than most freshmen, and has a ton of high level experience. Clifton has installed Aguirre at inside center, serving as support for Smith at flyhalf and a key attacking weapon. 

But Lindenwood-Belleville will also be better because they are all a year older. Clifton had some growing to do as a coach, too - last year was his first outing as a college Head Coach and he said he learned a lot.

"I learned an immense amount," he said. "Not only about coaching rugby, but about people management and player management. And, especially, student management. I think we've got a better handle on how we work with the players as students."

The Lynx didn't have a ton of height last year and maybe that's an issue, still, as only Shoukry is listed as taller than 6-3. However, three freshmen measure in at 6-3, and will be welcome additions in the lineout.

Tennessee, meanwhile, is in its third week of training and know they have a stiff competitor ahead of them. 

"We're certainly not going to overlook the game," said Bradley. "We don't have everything installed just yet and we're not going to for a while. We will have our hands full."

Lindenwood-Belleville was a DII playoff team, and is now in an independent DIAA schedule that makes almost every game crucial.

Tennessee has received a bit of an on-campus boost in that the rugby coaches were invited to the Tennessee Football walk-on tryouts. The idea was to give athletes options - if they didn't get picked by the football team, they could try rugby. Being invited to the walk-ons was a nod from the football program to the rugby team that they are worthy of respect, and Bradley took it as such. He has picked up a few players from that group and they will see some time soon.

Kerry Roberts scored the winning try in the SCRC final in 2015, but will miss this weekend as he is nursing an injury.

Nick Duklewski is a 5th-year flyhalf and he partners nicely with scrumhalf Travis Vickers, who is in his fourth year. In the forwards, Jack Donlon is another experienced senior who can lead. But the Volunteers also have some freshman talent coming up, including Malcolm Easley, and Michael Turner, the MVPs of the Rugby Tennessee 15s and 7s championships, respectively. It remains to be seen, though, whether they can replace the senior-heavy front row from last year. It was the pack that led Tennessee to a dramatic late-game win over South Carolina for the SCRC title at the ACRC Bowl Series. They will likely need that sort of fortitude again.

"We have a young forward back, true, but our backline will be a strength for us," said Bradley. "We have 11 or 12 guys fighting for six spots. And we have a freshman class that all love 7s."

Bradley said his team will be aggressive and will work hard, but this early in the season could get in penalty trouble early. Clifton, too, was muted.

"We have work to do, but I think we have the makings of a pretty good rugby team," he said.

Lindenwood-Belleville v Tennessee kicks off at Tennessee Rugby Park in Knoxville, Tenn. at 6pm local time.