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WILL Kicks Off Amid Shakeup

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WILL Kicks Off Amid Shakeup

Lindenwood-Belleville (red and white) in action against Lindenwood St. Charles. Sabine Neveu photo.

The new-look WIIL Men’s DII conference gets underway this weekend with 2014 national finalists the UW-Whitewater Warhawks heading up a strong lineup of teams.

Whitewater visits UW-Platteville in the opener for both teams on Saturday, while on Sunday we see UW-Stout, always one of the tougher teams in the conference, on the road at UW-Lacrosse, and Marquette going across town to UW-Milwaukee.

But perhaps eyes will be on the new faces on Saturday, as brand-new varsity program Lindenwood Belleville out of Belleville, Ill. plays its first conference game ever away at Illinois State - winners of the south division in 2014 - and Northern Iowa moves from the Northern Lights to WIIL and hosts Illinois-Chicago.

For UNI it’s all about finding tougher competition, something that, outside of Minnesota-Duluth, they didn’t feel they could find in Northern Lights. Northern Iowa defeated Iowa State 39-15 in a warmup match two weeks ago.

“Coming away with a victory over a very physical DI team always helps going into conference play,” said UNI club administrator Nick Evans. “Last year when we decided to switch conferences we wanted to have games that were going to challenge us more often and in the long run make us better throughout the year, with the hopes that constantly improving will get us to that next stage later in the season.”

Evans said UNI is feeling confident, and with several returning starters, and some added physicality, they have high hopes.

Hopes for Lindenwood-Belleville are hard to pin down, as almost the entire team is made up of freshman that debutant Head Coach Pat Clifton had to recruit in short order over the past several months. Clifton (who used to work with GRR Editor Alex Goff and still co-hosts the RuggaMatrix America podcast with him), somehow managed to form a team out of whole cloth, and then put them on the field in a scrimmage against Arkansas State, and a midweek extended subs game against DIA Lindenwood (St. Charles, Mo.) - albeit a reserve-grade lineup.

It was that latter game that is worth noting, as Belleville was impressive at times, getting tries from No. 8 Nick O’Brien and flanker Anthony Ferrera in a 43-17 loss. To score two tries against Lindenwood in their first real game was a small victory for the Lynx, who fixed some scrum issues but needed to address handling errors and failure to find touch on penalties.

“Our defense was solid but we kept giving up penalty after penalty,” said Clifton. “But compared to when we played Arkansas State, our defense was night and day. We still had some nerves - kids getting their first touch under the lights un front of a few hundreds people, and making mistakes. We killed ourselves with knock-ons. But we looked organized and played some pretty good rugby.”



 

It’s a tough first conference outing for Belleville, but Clifton said he wanted to make sure the first two warmups were tough, too, to get players used to the speed of the collegiate game. With a squad that includes only five non-freshmen, he will have to be patient, but Belleville could make a splash early.

Sam Benkowski out of Edina in Minnesota is a key play in the front row, while Bixby (Okla.) product O’Brien shows intensity. Illinois product West Jackson looks snappy at scrumhalf, and freshman Patrick Donovan out of Colorado Springs is the team captain.

“The thing about the Lindenwood game is that even if we didn’t play against all of their starters, they are guys who have been at the university for a couple of years and know each other - our guys have known each other for about three weeks,” said Clifton. “So I knew we had Illinois State, which dominated our division last year, as our first game, and I wanted to get some quality game time for everyone so the kids would get acclimated.”

Belleville and UNI together could shake up this conference, especially in the South where, as Clifton said, Illinois State has enjoyed the run of the house. 

 

WIIL List of teams

 

South Division (2014 conference record in parentheses)

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Depaul (1-3-1)

Illinois State (5-0)

Lindenwood-Belleville (DBP)

Loyola (4-1)

Northwestern (3-2)

University of Illinois-Chicago (1-4)

University of Northern Iowa (DNP)

 

North Division

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Marquette (2-4)

Northern Michigan (1-5)

UW-Lacrosse (4-2)

UW-Milwaukee (1-5)

UW-Platteville (2-4)

UW-Stout (5-1)

UW-Whitewater (6-0)

 

This weekend’s games:

 

UW-Whitewater at UW-Platteville WIIL
Lindenwood-Belleville at Illinois State WIIL
UIC at Northern Iowa WIIL
UW-Stout at UW-Lacrosse WIIL
Marquette at UW-Milwaukee WIIL