Minutemen face Coast Guard in weekend slate

By Dan Gigliotti

The University of Massachusetts club rugby team ran away with a win against Amherst College Sunday, keeping their footing atop the New England Rugby Football Union rankings. The fourteenth-ranked Minutemen will travel to Coast Guard Academy on Saturday in an effort to continue its bid for a perfect season.

The wet field was no impediment to the Minutemen, (5-0, 4-0 NERFU Southern Conference), as they sprinted to 14 tries in an 82-0 rout. Coach Al Baker said he expected to see this result, but noticed improvements in his team’s play on the pitch.

“Our rucking took a big step forward,” Baker said.

UMass set a physical tone for the game during the opening scrum, as the Minutemen rarely yielded possession in the first half, maintaining a strong presence inside of the Lord Jeff’s 22-meter line throughout. They trudged out to a 31-0 lead after 40 minutes and never looked back, as wily play by fullback Clark Hoopes early in the second half epitomized the day’s competition.

The Lord Jeffs drove deep into Minutemen territory, threatening to score their first points of the afternoon when the home team stiffened up its defensive efforts. UMass stalled the Amherst attack by wrestling the ball from the Lord Jeff’s hands and kicking it clear past the 22-meter line. Coveting possession, the senior Hoopes found a seam amidst a cluster of players clogging the end line and sprinted up field. The speedster raced past the outstretched arms of an Amherst player and made the recovery, out-striding defenders while going the length of the pitch for a try.

A healthy balance of speed and power were displayed on Saturday. That type of balance has been characteristic of the Minutemen all season. Physical play by Brendan Daly (4 tries) rallied the forwards to win the battle at the point of impact, and the imposing play up front was complemented by an agile back seven led by Hoopes (3 tries).

With a comfortable lead in the second half, Baker got a chance to experiment with his lineup. Using all seven substitutions, the coach inserted players at different positions, and gave his starters a spell; something he hoped to be able to do going into last weekend’s match.  

UMass will take their spotless record on the road this weekend against a competitive Coast Guard team. The Bears have been eliminated from playoff contention following a 42-14 drudging at the hands of No. 15 Rhode Island. Despite the Coast Guard’s recent woes, the Minutemen are not going to take the Bears lightly.

“Coast Guard is as good as advertised,” Baker said. “They placed third in last year’s final four and won the championship the year before that. They are better than their record shows and, if anything, it says that the rest of the league has gotten better.”

On Sept. 19, the two teams collided in a hotly contested back-and-forth match-up, ending with UMass besting the Bears 27-17. On that day, Coast Guard scored first on a penalty kick, and the Minutemen answered with a try the 11th minute. From that point on, they wouldn’t relinquish the lead, as the two teams traded blows all half, going into the break with a score of 12-10. The two teams deadlocked at 17 with less than 30 minutes left, but UMass fought off the pesky Bears to pull away with the victory.

The Bears will look to play spoiler in front of homecoming crowd in New London, CT.

Along with good coaching, Baker cited the Bear’s natural fitness and well-regimented training as their strong suit. He expects them to be more disruptive and apply more pressure to force turnovers. UMass hopes to counteract that by intensifying its pursuit on defense and maintaining possession.

Overall, the Minutemen are excited about their highest ranking in recent memory. With reason to be confident and pleased, they are still looking to avoid a let-down and defend their season this weekend.

“It only takes one mistake,” Baker said. “We’ll take it one step at a time. The job is not done until we’re number one.”

Daniel Gigliotti can be reached  at [email protected]