Paladins put a wrap on fall season, looking forward to spring matrix play

by John Roberts, Paladin Head Coach

Entering the fall season, I looked at our fall record and was absolutely stunned by our youth.

Heading into our first game against Clemson’s second side, we traveled with 13 freshmen, a high school senior who will enroll at Furman next fall, 6 sophomores, one junior and one senior, by far the youngest Paladin team to ever to take the field.

My expectations for the fall were modest. Sure I wanted to win some games, but most importantly I wanted to improve week to week, avoid the injury bug and build some chemistry for the spring.

In the first game, our inexperience was apparent. While the Paladins showed aggression and grit, the Tigers exploited our poor backline defense and scored several trys against some first-game rookies who missed assignments.

Despite our youth, the Furman team is stocked with athletes. And that showed the next day as the team put together a 6-1 record at small sevens tournament hosted by Lander University.

The next week, a dozen players (four sophomores, seven freshmen and one high school senior) traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina to participate in the Southern Conference 7s tournament.  We dropped our first game to Coastal Carolina by a try, but then ran off four consecutive wins against The Citadel, College of Charleston, Lander and UNC-Charlotte. The Paladins ended the tournament as we began, losing to a very athletic CCU team. Nick Rossano, a freshman and recipient of the first Furman rugby scholarship, and Zach Roberts, a high school senior, led the team in scoring. It was a great weekend for Paladin rugby as we were the surprise team of the tournament.

The strong weekend in Wilmington launched the team into the fall 15s season.

In our first home game, the Paladins ran past Western Carolina 87-3 and then handed Davidson  a 47-5 loss. The only sour spot of the game was an injury to Rossano, a fractured shin, that would have him on the sidelines the rest of the year.

The next three games were against men’s teams. And they took a physical toll on the young squad. In a competitive contest, the Paladins dropped a 36-19 game to Sherman College (a men’s team) and then fell short to a well-stocked and deep alumni team 56-28.

Battered and missing several starters, the Paladins entered the Palmetto Tournament with just 17 players. The squad dropped the opening salvo to Sherman and then dispatched the Citadel B side by two trys.

The third game was an epic battle against Citadel A. Both teams exchanged the lead several times, but the Bulldogs took home a victory by three points. The next game, the Paladins dropped a 19-0 decision to Division I USC that was evenly played until the second half.

With three weeks rest, the Paladins played a very strong UT b-side team November 17. Furman put together a marvelous first half, matching the Volunteers 10-10. But the larger UT team wore down a depleted Paladin forward pack and took home a 32-17 win.

At the end of the fall, Furman was left holding a 3-5 record in 15s. Not great, but not bad considering four of those five losses came against a men’s team and two division I teams. In sevens, our record was an outstanding 10-3.

Looking ahead to the Spring, I feel the team is primed to make a legitimate run at our conference championship.

We are getting reinforcements on several fronts.

To be sure, we will miss Roberts who is moving on for his final season of high school rugby. Returning to the Paladin backline, though, will be captain Will Merline, who broke his ankle in an August skiing accident and was lost for the fall.  Lane Erwin, an outstanding fullback who started for the Paladins last fall, is returning as well. Too, Connor Wilson who played in only half of the Furman games at outside center, will be with the Furman team full time in the spring.  Wilson, a walk-on for the football team, missed the Southern Conference 7s, and the Palmetto Tournament, due to football commitments.

Early in the season Rossano emerged as the engine of our young group of forwards and led the team in scoring. So his return in the spring will give our pack a huge lift. Too, prop Wilson Roberts and senior lock Will Donahey will return to the Paladins after a fall spent studying abroad.

While all the players on our team improved throughout the fall, several took huge steps. Cole Vance emerged late in the season as force on the wing. Eight-man Richard Budd blossomed into a very solid 8-man and Turner Morches showed tremendous leadership at inside center.

After a Thanksgiving break, the team will return for conditioning, weight room and film sessions. And we are looking to make amends for a disappointing spring 2012 run.