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Kiski Valley rugby team prepares to defend state title

| Sunday, May 14, 2017, 1:19 a.m.
Kiski Valley rugby team breaks through Burrell on Wednesday night at Burrell High School.
Kiski Valley rugby team breaks through Burrell on Wednesday night at Burrell High School.
Kiski Valley rugby captain Luke Larko works on his passing skills during a recent practice at Kiski Area High Schoo Wednesday March 8, 2017.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Kiski Valley rugby captain Luke Larko works on his passing skills during a recent practice at Kiski Area High Schoo Wednesday March 8, 2017.

Kiski Valley rugby coach Seth Erwin could sense the light bulbs turning on in the heads of his younger players in the regular-season finale against North Pitt United.

In a season plagued by injuries to experienced players, coupled with younger players getting their first taste of varsity action, the Titans clicked and put forth one of their best performances of the season in a 24-10 win over the Warriors that clinched the Blue Division title.

The No. 4-seeded Titans hope to carry the momentum over when they start their Rugby PA Club Division state championship defense by hosting No. 5 Kutztown at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Davis Field in Vandergrift.

Kiski Valley (6-4) never has faced Kutztown, which finished second in the Red Division.

If the Titans want to advance to the state semifinals in Cumberland Valley next weekend, Erwin said they need a similar effort to what they had last week.

“They need to play the same type of rugby that they played the last 20 minutes of last week's match,” Erwin said. “They maintained ball control. They minimized mistakes and penalties. They cut the young guy excuse and just played rugby.”

Kiski Valley started the season with few returning starters with the graduation of mainstays like Ty Travaglia, Tyler Worthing and Dean Urbanski, and the experience level went down even further when injuries started piling up.

Kevin Ryan, a senior forward captain, was lost for the season with a broken wrist.

Jacob Levy, another captain, was sidelined for a while with an injury before returning and four-year starter Gavin Robinson also missed time because of injury.

Erwin hopes to get Robinson back for Sunday's match.

Among the younger players who have made their presence known is Valley sophomore David Schuffert. In his first season with the varsity team, Schuffert, who wrestles as a heavyweight at Valley, has been one of the leaders in tries for the Titans.

“David is an excellent rugby player,” Erwin said. “He has that typical wrestler mold where he has awesome footwork, especially for a big guy. He's also awesome in the contact area, and his wrestling background helps because he's used to angling his hips the right way. He's big, he's strong and he has a quickness that a lot of people don't know is coming, so he's able to put himself in position for tries. He's been a huge boost for us. It's his first year on varsity, and he has like 12 or 13 tries.”

Sophomores Andrew Bigler, Colton Howard, Austin Micko and Matt Ashbaugh and freshmen Hayden Wright and Will McClarnon are first-year varsity players who have seen starting action this season.

Many of them were on the junior varsity team that lost in the state final last year. The transition from having an experienced team to a youthful one this year has presented challenges. Kiski Valley scored wins over North Pitt United, Central Catholic and Moon but lost to Burrell for the first time in two years and dropped two matches to West Allegheny.

The Titans hope the in-season lessons will pay dividends in the postseason.

“There were definitely ups and downs throughout the season,” Erwin said.

“It was a good learning experience for the kids and our coaching staff. Last year, (the coaching staff) had it very easy. This year it's been about getting our nose back to the grindstone, getting back to basics and getting back to our structure. It's been night and day from last year, but it's been a good ride so far. Hopefully, we can keep winning and keep advancing.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.

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