As the Empire season marches on, the championship picture gets murkier. With just two weeks left to play, there are still five teams who have a realistic shot at winning the league – Buffalo, Brockport, St. Bonaventure, Iona and Stony Brook.
On Friday, Stony Brook beat St. Bonaventure 35-33 in a rematch of last season’s Empire title game to stay in the race, as a loss would have essentially eliminated the Seawolves from contention.
Stony Brook actually held a 35-18 lead early in the second half, but two yellow cards helped St. Bonaventure get back in the game. Once at full strength, the Seawolves defense stiffened and staved off a comeback. Stony Brook’s PJ Abelein was the game’s leading scorer with 15 points off of three conversions and two penalties. Stony Brook lock Thomas Kirnbauer scored two tries on the day.
St. Bonaventure rebounded Sunday, beating USMMA 20-0 to improve to 5-2-1. With the same record but an extra bonus point is Brockport, who nudged past Syracuse 29-21 Saturday. The result keeps Brockport squarely in the championship hunt and effectively eliminated Syracuse. The Orange aren’t mathematically eliminated from contention, but their hill is probably too steep to climb.
Stony Brook is actually ranked fifth amongst playoff eligible teams in the Empire, but having played one less game than the rest of the contenders.
Sitting in pole position is 6-2 Buffalo, who downed Binghamton 29-20 Saturday. The Bulls led 12-6 at halftime and pulled off something they hadn’t done all season – outscoring their opponent in the second half. Even in their five previous wins, the Bulls were outscored after intermission.
“That was kind of a good milestone for us and a good goal that we reached, and we were on the right side of the penalty count for the first time,” said Buffalo coach Mike Hodgins. “Those are things that we were kind of aware of and trying to improve on.”
Buffalo got five tries from five different guys Saturday, and the tight five stole six scrums against the head in the second half, signaling that the win was the result of a complete team effort.
“That made the whole difference in that game,” said Hodgins. “Our tight five really put in a quality performance in the second half, which was good we were able to manage the game that way.”
After the first two weeks of the season, it would have seemed a stretch for anyone to pick Buffalo as a favorite to win the league. The Bulls were 1-2, having lost to St. Bonaventure and Iona and beaten Rutgers by a closer margin than anyone else up to that point. Buffalo is now riding a five-game win streak.
“We got caught early season, but we knew we had some better rugby in front of us and we’ve been improving every week,” said Hodgins.
“After our bye week, we said we’ve got the middle four games of our season and that’s pretty much going to determine whether we’re going up or down, and we managed to win all four, so we’ve just continued to improve a little bit incrementally every week. It’s just been a matter of steady improvement and peaking at the right time.”
Buffalo closes out the season with Brockport and Army. A win over Brockport is crucial to the Bulls’ championship effort, as no Empire team has beaten the Black Knights this fall. But with only two weeks left, every game is crucial for all five teams left in the hunt.
Schedule for next two weeks:
Brockport at Buffalo
Rutgers at St. Bonaventure
Syracuse at USMMA
Stony Brook at Iona
Fordham at Stony Brook
Syracuse at Army
Binghamton at Rutgers
Iona at St. Bonaventure
Buffalo at Army
Brockport at Stony Brook