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Rocky Gorge's Nick Sylor vs Norfolk. Evan Lappen Photo.

With the fall season coming to a close in DI Club Rugby, the late schedule games are becoming much more important. The Atlantic North schedule concluded with a NYAC 52-39 win against Old Blue, but Blue walked away with the ARP title. In the Mid-Atlantic, Rocky Gorge handed the Norfolk Blues its first loss in an epic 21-17 hit fest while Pittsburgh and Schuylkill River also won. The marathon Midwest entered its 12th week of play and Metropolis kept its streak alive with a 48-14 victory against Cincinnati. The Chicago Lions kept pace with a win over Palmer, Milwaukee defeated Columbus, and Kansas City took down the Chicago Griffins. There was only one match in the Pacific Northwest, and it was ORSU surviving a comeback attempt by the Eastside Tsunami.

Atlantic North

NYAC at Old Blue

Two early tries were not enough for Old Blue to overcome a dynamic NYAC attack at home in Randall’s Island, N.Y. Old Blue jumped up 19-0 but NYAC came back to win 52-39. Despite the loss, Old Blue earned the ARP title with a 3-1 conference record.

In a match full of momentum swings, the comeback began with NYAC’s first try at 25’, though Old Blue’s Gavan D'Amore-Morrison came right back to make it 22-5. Two NYAC tries right before halftime closed the gap to 22-19 to seemingly give the momentum to the visitors.

However, Old Blue came out as it did the first half and quickly rebuilt a 36-19 lead with converted tries by Phillip Salter and Keenan Jacobs in the first six minutes of the second half. Beginning in the 58th minute with a yellow card and subsequent penalty try, NYAC’s assault was in full effect. The visitors finished the match with five tries to just a penalty kick from Old Blue to complete the turnaround and capture the 13-point win over its cross-town rivals.

“They came out pretty hot,” NYAC coach Chris Edwards explained. “They were ready to throw the ball around and play the corners. We turned the game around and pulled it back inside and made it a massive contest up front with the forwards. It was definitely a game of two halves. When we brought it back in and got over that advantage line, the defense was scrambled and was able to unleash the backs a bit.”

In spite of the loss and a three-game losing streak to close the season, Old Blue still captured the ARP crown. “All season we have tried to challenge the status quo and evolve the way American rugby is played,” Old Blue coach Dom Wareing said about his squad’s season. “Averaging over 40 points per game against some of the best teams in the country and finishing as ARP champs show we are half the way to doing that. We were disappointed to finish the season the way we did, not necessarily because we lost but because the performances were not complete and not meeting the standards we set for ourselves.”

NYAC had pretty much the complete opposite kind of season than Old Blue. After a 1-3 start, NYAC closed with a huge win over Mystic, then the rivalry win over the boys in Blue Saturday. “I think it’s two things,” Edwards said about NYAC’s close to the season. “The first is we had a few key guys that were away with injuries come back into the fold. Second, there were guys that were new to the club within the last 18 months that have stepped up. I think it was getting the availability back but also guys internally stepping up and ready to take their role on without a tap on the shoulder. It was a season of ups and downs.”

Mid-Atlantic

Norfolk Blues at Rocky Gorge

The first match between the conference leaders in the Mid-Atlantic was postponed due to the tragedy in the Norfolk Blues family. On Saturday, the Blues and Rocky Gorge squared off in Columbia, Md. for the tightest and most physical match of the season. In the end, Rocky Gorge outlasted Norfolk, winning 21-17. If both teams win out in the spring, the postponed match scheduled for April 21st may determine the conference champion.

After 25 minutes of intense defensive rugby, Gorge flanker Dustin Meehan broke through and the Ben Cima conversion made it 7-0 to the hosts. After halftime, Norfolk evened the score with a Jake Humphrey try of a line break from 30 meters out.

Gorge came right back at 51’ with a forwards try from prop Tony Ayigah, and the Cima boot made it 14-7. The home team was back inside the 22 soon after and the penalties against the Blues began to mount. The referee got involved carding two Norfolk players, but Gorge couldn’t capitalize. With a timely ruck penalty, the Blues were able to kick out of danger.

Shorthanded, Norfolk’s Humphrey cut the lead to 14-10 following a penalty. Back at full strength, the Norfolk defense continued to hit and be active at the breakdown. In the final ten minutes, Gorge’s bruising wing Brady Smith gave his team some breathing room with a converted try, but Norfolk far from done.

The Blues responded immediately off the kickoff spinning the ball wide to Anthony Kowalski who made multiple defenders miss for the try. In the last minutes, the Gorge defense held its ground and Cima booted the ball into touch for the 21-17 victory.

“It was a tough game—very physical, which Norfolk always is,” Rocky Gorge coach Nick DiMichele said. “We didn’t execute our attack like we wanted to but it was enough to secure the win. Our bench was deep, guys like Brady Smith came in and delivered a statement. I think everything was equal; we were able to outlast Norfolk and our defensive integrity held to seal the win.”

“Most of the game was played between the 22s,” Norfolk coach Chris Porter explained about the match. “No one was going to let anyone else take advantage of anything; a lot of hard hitting on both sides. The defense was fantastic for both groups. Each team had to take advantage when it got inside the 22, and I think that’s what ended up happening. Rocky Gorge just had a few more opportunities than we did. Hard-hitting match. Our motto has been ‘a full 80’ this year and I think that’s the first time against Rocky Gorge that we played a full 80.”

Norfolk will host Gorge on April 21st and Porter was already looking at what his club could do better to secure the win the next time around. “We started out being very aggressive and we started getting penalties, one after another, and letting them stay down there [inside the 22]. We’ve got to play to what the ref’s going to call; if he’s calling so it’s not so aggressive in the rucks then we’ve got to fan out a little bit more and make them work again. We just have to cut down our mistakes because you just can’t make mistakes with Ben [Cima] at 10.”

Schuylkill River Exiles at Washington Irish

In the District of Columbia, the Washington Irish hosted Schuylkill River at Hains Point. Down 27-5 in the first half, Irish clawed back to cut the deficit to 27-24 in the 75th minute. Schuylkill woke up in the final minutes to seal the match with a try and held on for the 34-24 win.

With four tries in the first 22 minutes, Schuylkill was up 22-0 and it looked like it could be a blowout. But as it's done all season, including a 21-0 comeback last week, Irish kept its composure, played its game and chipped away at the lead.

Washington’s Ollie Longworth scored to close the gap, but Schuylkill came right back before Irish’s Longworth notched another to make it 27-12 at halftime. That score held for 20 minutes before two Washington tries from Joe Mount and Bobby Kling made it 27-24.

With five matches decided by four points or less on the season, Schuylkill was no stranger to tight finishes. The composure paid off for the visitors with lock Jeff Hall’s decisive try at 78’, and wing Cody Bukowski’s conversion marked the final score at 34-24.

“We got off to a great start, counter to what we’ve been doing all season,” Schuylkill coach Owen Jones explained. “Rather than having to fight back, we had a struggle in the second half to maintain the lead. They were strong with their forward runners, but they were also very fast and good with the ball in hand in the backline; they didn’t make many mistakes. They played a game where they stuck to it, and it gave us fits at the end.”

Jones pointed to a strong team effort as a spark to the win. With a number of regulars unavailable, six different players scored tries on Saturday. They were prop Ricky Schneider, flanker Ben Janssen, hooker Tyler Kelly, inside center Matt Giannascoli, fullback Dan Deal, and Hall. Bukowski added two conversions. 

“I think it’s a testament to both our depth and guys knowing what’s on the line here at the end of the fall,” Jones added. “It was a great win to get under our belt and have a little more confidence [for next week].”

Potomac Exiles at Pittsburgh Harlequins

The Potomac Exiles went to Pittsburgh, Pa. and were sent home with a 31-26 road loss to the Harlequins. Potomac used Pittsburgh turnovers and an explosive backline to go on top of the ‘Quins 19-14 at halftime. But Pittsburgh stuck to its gameplan and thwarted a number of Exiles’ attacks to hold onto the win.

“A lot of credit to Potomac—they came ready to play despite limited subs, and it took everything we had,” Pittsburgh captain Mike Gorrell said. “First half, we were extremely undisciplined and careless with the ball, which led to a few breakaway tries for the opposition. We didn't do anything extremely well on the day, but our resolve proved to be key. Having dropped three straight, we knew we're already in ‘win or go home’ mode if we want to qualify for playoffs and return to the MAC championship. Protecting a narrow lead late with two men off for cards, I thought the boys showed a lot of heart.”

Midwest

Metropolis at Cincinnati Wolfhounds

In the wild Midwest, Metropolis pushed its record to 12-0 after jumping all over the Cincinnati Wolfhounds for the 48-14 road win. The Wolfhounds had won four straight, but a 41-0 first half for the undefeated Metropolis was just too much to recover from.

“We played well defensively, especially early in the game,” Metro coach Rob Holder said. “We were able to get into a good field position game in the first half. We put them under pressure in their own end and it turned into a lot of tries for us. The first half was probably our best of the season; we were up 41-0 and Cincinnati’s been on a roll. They’re a really good team. That was the key: field position and then executing the basics in the right areas.”

Melvin Desouza (3), Ekapatelisio Veamatahau, Kavika Peniata, Bryant Larson, Bryan Ptomey, and Ami Lavakeiaho were the Metropolis try scorers. Ptomey also chipped in with four conversions.  

Metropolis has Milwaukee at home on Saturday and concludes its season at Columbus on November 18th.

Chicago Lions at Palmer College Dragons

The Chicago Lions went to Davenport, Ia. and came away with a 26-15 road win over Palmer. Flyhalf JP Eloff spotted the Lions an early 14-0 lead with two tries and two conversions. Palmer fought through to the end but was never able to get the match back to one possession.

After Palmer scored to make it 14-5, wing Jake Hidalgo broke through just before halftime to make it 19-5 at the break. Palmer made it 19-10 at 55’, but that was as close as the Dragons got. Scrummy Kevin Lydon scored and converted his own five minutes later to go up 26-10, and that was all the Lions needed to secure the win. 

“Despite wet conditions, we were trying to play attacking rugby and in the end that was the difference,” Lions’ coach Dave Clancy explained. “Our defense was good and we dealt with their kicking strategy throughout. It wasn't a great game to watch but a case of job done in less than ideal conditions.”

Eloff stood out and set the tone early in his final game with the Lions before traveling with the USA and moving onto the MLR for the spring. “We had an intercept try early in the game by JP which sparked more scores and allowed us to get some young guys on the field to experience DI rugby. JP was a constant threat in his final game, contributing 16 points on the day.”

Chicago Griffins at Kansas City Blues

The Kansas City Blues handled a resurgent Chicago Griffins side, 46-29, at home in Kansas City, Mo. With the win, the Blues improved to 5-7 while the Griffins fell to 2-10.

Fullback Blake Baty spotted the Blues a 5-0 lead and that score held until the Griffins got on the board with a converted try at 24’ to take the lead. The middle stand of the game is where the Blues got the attack rolling and took control of the match. From the 27th minute to the 53rd, Kansas City scored five tries, with the Griffins’ only response coming via penalty kick. That stretch put Kansas City up 36-10 and was more than enough from there on out.

“We focused all week on defense and shutting down the attack around the breakdown,” Blues’ coach Scott Kram explained. “It was a huge improvement from the previous week. I think we were pretty evenly matched as the Griffins definitely brought down a stronger side than our last match versus them.”

“We did a good job of offering a balanced attack,” Kram continued. “We wanted to keep them guessing and did well changing up our attacks as they reacted to them. The tries were evenly split between the backs and pack.  Instead of relying on a single playmaker, I feel this was more of a team win than we have had in any other game this season.”

Baty’s early try was followed by flanker Connor McDounough, wing Brendan Nachbar, prop Ryan Scheidt, Nachbar’s second, lock Kevin Schwartze, and reserve Erik Miller. Nachbar also added three conversions with the boot.

Columbus-Scioto Valley at Milwaukee Barbarians

The Barbarians dispatched Columbus, 23-5, in Milwaukee, Wisc. to break an eight-game losing streak. A Ray Schwalbe try and a conversion and penalty kick by #10 Joe Gardener made it 10-0 early. Columbus came right back to make it 10-5 at 17’, but those were the final points for the visitors.

Wing Justin Patterson and three more Gardener penalty kicks plus a conversion made up the rest of the points for Milwaukee.

Pacific Northwest

ORSU at Eastside Tsunami

ORSU survived a ferocious comeback from the Eastside Tsunami to remain unbeaten in Portland, Ore. The visitors jumped to a 32-7 lead, but Eastside nearly came all the way back. The Tsunami stymied the ORSU attack for the final 21 minutes and got it to 32-28 with four minutes to play. The visitors held on for the final few minutes and Eastside took its first loss of the season.

“Set piece dominance was a big part of our game—particularly at scrum time,” ORSU captain Ricky Lopez explained about the win. “We were able to set a good platform for the backs, as well as win a few penalties and free kicks. Defense was our focus this week with a specific emphasis on line speed and efficient tackling.”

“The Tsunami has a lot of big, dangerous runners and we made a point of getting them to ground before they could gain any momentum. Credit to the Tsunami, we opened the door and they came storming back in the second half. It was really only through sheer grit and determination that we were able to close out the match,” Lopez concluded.

Lopez pointed to his scrummy and open-side flanker as leaders who helped keep ORSU undefeated on the year. “Talo Fetu'uaho marshaled the forwards and lent a physical presence to the fringes. Tysen Gray put in a tremendous shift on the open side.”

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