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NYAC vs Chicago.

Twenty games in two days highlighted the USA Club Rugby East Regionals at Founder’s Field in Pittsburgh, Pa. over the weekend. With a trip to the Club Championships in Glendale, Colo. on June 3rd on the line, five divisions were up for grabs in the quarterfinal and semifinal matches. When the rain cleared on Sunday, NYAC (DI Men’s), the Raleigh Venom (DI Women’s), the Life Running Eagles (DII Men’s), the Milwaukee Scylla (DII Women’s), and the Bremer County Bucks (DIII Men’s) earned their entrance to Nationals in Glendale.

In the DI Men’s Quarterfinals, NYAC outlasted Mystic River, 32-14, and the Chicago Lions beat Rocky Gorge, 32-24 with two late tries. For NYAC, it methodically built a 25-point lead before Mystic answered with two second-half tries to close it to 25-14. In the battle between the last two National Champions, the 2015 champions calmly finished what it had started scoring a try on the last play of the game for the 18-point victory.

Waiting for NYAC in the semifinals was the Chicago Lions. Chicago looked to have the upper hand early against Rocky Gorge by dominating possession to build a 10-0 lead. A Ben Cima penalty kick closed it to 10-3 and evened the game at 10 all when Gorge converted a line break with a couple of offloads for the centered try.

With the momentum after halftime, Gorge put a scare in the Midwest champs by going up 17-10. Aided by a yellow card, Chicago returned to its ball-possession style and sealed this one with 22 unanswered points before Gorge scored at the death to close the final margin.

That set the stage for the National Semifinal between two of USA’s traditional powers, NYAC and Chicago.  With rain coming down on the combatants, it took ten minutes of sloppy play before NYAC could get a hold and take the 5-0 lead. Five minutes later, NYAC extended the lead with a penalty kick, then hit another at 28’. The 13-0 NYAC lead held, as both teams struggled to maintain possession and build an attack.

Early in the second half, NYAC kept pounding away with its forwards before it was rewarded with the try at 45’. Chicago had its chances but couldn’t execute until there were only eight minutes left in the match. NYAC put the clamps on any comeback attempt three minutes later with a converted try for the game’s final score, 27-5.

“It was a tough game, tough conditions out there,” said NYAC coach Chris Edwards. “A lot of tactical kicking to turn the ball around. It was a big day for our #10 Chris Mattina. He stepped up in a couple of tough spots on both days, Saturday and Sunday. The boys really played well around him. He created a lot of space for the guys out wide as well—for guys like Seamus Kelly to do their job.”

For a Chicago Lions team that extended its preseason goal of winning the Midwest, attention was already on next season just minutes after the match. “What’s going to be invaluable is the experience of getting this far, this deep into the competition and coming up against these teams,” said Lions coach Dave Clancy. “Obviously, I’m disappointed today. I think we could have been quite a bit closer and the conditions certainly didn’t help. We like to play a little bit wider and we didn’t kick very well today. They kicked very well and played in the right ends of the field and that’s where they got their points. All in all, it’s a good learning experience for us.”

NYAC will try to win its second National Championship in three years on June 3rd in Glendale, Colo. The Atlantic North Champs will take on the Austin Huns, who used a big second half to run past Belmont Shore. “We’ll go out there and play our structure. We’ll play for the 23 guys we have out in the paddock that day and hopefully get the job done at the next level,” said Edwards.

The DI Women’s matches culminated in a semifinal between two familiar foes from the Mid-Atlantic. In the first quarterfinal, the Raleigh Venom ran past Beantown 42-10, led by fullback Jazmine “Jaz” Gray and her three tries.  NOVA had to survive a late rally from Chicago North Shore but advanced with the 28-24 victory.

The semifinal contenders knew each other well with NOVA leading the season series with two straight victories and the Mid-Atlantic Championship. Raleigh had a short memory and quickly showed it would not be intimidated en route to the 18-10 victory.

The Venom dominated possession for the first ten minutes before flyhalf Chelsea Garber put her team on the board with a penalty kick. Both teams spent significant time in the other’s scoring zone throughout the remainder of the half. Stout defense and handling errors in the rain kept both teams scoreless for the rest of the first stand and Raleigh’s 3-0 lead held until halftime.

The Venom finally found the try line early in the second half, but NOVA quickly answered to close the gap to 8-5. Raleigh then extended its lead to 13-5 off a smart little pick from the weak side of the ruck and scored again with 15 minutes to play to seal the win. NOVA fought back with its own try at 76’, but the missed conversion kept it a two-possession game.

The Raleigh defense stood up in the final minutes to preserve the 18-10 win. The Venom now advance to play the Life West Gladiatrix, 73-12 winners over the Utah Vipers, for the National Championship in Glendale.

Raleigh coach Neil Pietila pointed to his team’s defense and patience as the keys that led his team to victory. “We zeroed out the rucks. We just put line pressure on, made our tackles, and that allowed us to push down the field,” explained Pietila. “Then we just stayed patient when we got inside the 22. [In the] second half we finally opened up and got some opportunities. The defense was all team effort; everyone just made their one-up tackles.”

For the NOVA side, a successful season with a division championship will still be lamented for the opportunities that got away. “It’s awfully hard to beat a good club three times in a row,” said NOVA coach Brian Walker. “I know how hard they worked, I know how hard we worked, and I think this was one of those games that came down to who executed better. We had a couple of handling errors early in the wet conditions that made it hard for us to get out of our own zone. Excellent job by Raleigh; we wish them the best moving forward. ”

In the DII Men’s Quarterfinals, the Life Running Eagles and the Detroit Tradesmen ran past each of its respective opponents on Saturday. Life used a big second half to earn the 34-13 win over the Morris Lions. Detroit similarly turned a close game at the half into a 69-24 rout of the Washington Irish to set up a Sunday Semifinal thriller that proved to be the match of the weekend.

Down 10-7 with minutes to go before halftime, Detroit pounded away on the goal line in an attempt to steal the lead. The Life defense was up to the task, then earned a turnover, flipped the field, and scored to take the momentum and ten-point advantage at the break.

Detroit closed it to 17-10 with an early penalty kick, but it still seemed as though Life had control. Detroit flipped the game on its head scoring back-to-back tries to give the Tradesman a 22-17 lead. Life responded with two straight tries for the seven-point lead with seven minutes left to play.

Detroit came right back with only four minutes left and scored along the sideline. For a minute, it looked like there might be some extra time playoff rugby, but the conversion attempt was just wide and Life held the slim two-point lead. With less than two to go, Life hit a penalty kick to take the five-point advantage. Detroit tried to mount a stoppage time comeback, but Life got the turnover and booted it out to seal the 32-27 win.

“I think at the end of the game the guys showed some grit and heart to come back after we went down,” said Life coach Blake Bradford. “Tough game; Detroit’s a good team. We knew we were going to be up for a good battle today. I think in defense, we really came up. We wanted to put them under pressure with some fast line speed and we were able to do that and force the Tradesmen into mistakes. I’m super proud of the guys.”

Waiting for Life in Glendale, Colo. is the St. Louis Bombers, who defeated the Ventura County Outlaws and Sacramento Blackhawks in the West Regionals.

The Milwaukee Scylla and Bremer County Bucks will join the other East Regional finalists in Glendale after winning their DII Women’s and DIII Men’s brackets.

Alexander is a beat reporter for Rugby Today, published author, freelance sports writer and club rugby player for the Potomac Exiles. For more rugby action and his sports takes, follow him on Twitter @alexanderdiegel.

DIVISIONTEAMSCORETEAMSCORE
DI Men SemifinalsNYAC27Chicago Lions5
DI Men ConsolationMystic River77Rocky Gorge17
DI Women SemifinalsRaleigh Venom18NOVA10
DI Women ConsolationBeantown19Chicago North Shore5
DII Men SemifinalsLife Running Eagles32Detroit Tradesmen27
DII Men ConsolationMorris Lions49Washington Irish24
DII Women SemifinalsMilwaukee Scylla41Providence17
DII Women ConsolationFort Miami50Harrisburg17
DIII Men SemifinalsBremer County Bucks62Southern Pines24
DIII Men ConsolationSaratoga24Lehigh Valley22
QUARTERFINALS
DI MenNYAC32Mystic River14
DI MenChicago Lions32Rocky Gorge24
DI WomenNOVA28Chicago North Shore24
DI WomenRaleigh Venom42Beantown10
DII MenDetroit Tradesmen69Washington Irish24
DII MenLife Running Eagles34Morris Lions13
DII WomenMilwaukee Scylla23Harrisburg10
DII WomenProvidence18Fort Miami15
DIII MenBremer County Bucks68Lehigh Valley34
DIII MenSouthern Pines36Saratoga13

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