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For the first time in Mid-Atlantic Conference history, both sides of Rocky Gorge will join Wilmington as conference champions. Rocky Gorge’s DI and DIII squads beat the Norfolk Blues, 48-22, and Reading, 32-24, respectively, and Wilmington triumphed over the Richmond Lions, 32-24, for the DII title. Rocky Gorge and Wilmington have advanced to the National Quarterfinals next weekend in Pittsburgh, but the DIII representative has yet to be determined.
The issue in question for DIII is the “Old Blue Rule” where clubs fielding two sides in non-contiguous divisions has the lower side not eligible for the National Playoffs. Even though the Reading lost in the final, according to the USA Rugby Eligibility Regulations, Reading will advance to the next round. However, Rocky Gorge has filed an appeal with USA Rugby and ultimate decision will be made soon.
As for the action on Saturday and Sunday in Wilmington, Del., the weather held off long enough for all the games to be completed. In the final match of the day on Saturday, Rocky Gorge and its undefeated record confronted the Norfolk Blues for the DI title. Using its superior speed and skill of its backline, Rocky Gorge outplayed the Blues in route to a 48-22 victory in its first year in DI.
“These games are never easy regardless the result,” Rocky Gorge head coach Nick DiMichele stated. “It was an extremely physical match and Norfolk are the type of guys who refuse to take their foot off the gas. We had a very productive first half and it's a good thing because we spent the second 40 fighting up hill, into the wind, and playing out of our own end... Winning the MAC title in our first year in DI is a huge accomplishment for us. Now, we head to Pittsburgh to see how we measure up against the best teams in the country.”
Norfolk had most of the possession in the first half playing downhill, but it was Rocky Gorge who made the most of its opportunities. The first Gorge try came off a stolen scrum where the ball was swung out to the wing where Trevor Tanifum kicked the pass and recovered the pill for the try. Flyhalf Ben Cima converted for the 7-0 lead.
Gorge added to the lead after a Nick Sylor try, but the Blues struck back with inside crash line ending with a score from wing Nick Sandoval. Flyhalf Johnny Cameron missed the points after as Gorge led 14-5. After some back and forth of possession, a Norfolk 22 drop landed in the hands of Sylor who centered it to Ben Cima. The USA U20 flyhalf unexpectedly kicked a drop goal splitting the uprights from 45 meters out.
Gorge closed the half with three more tries for a commanding 36-5 halftime advantage. First, Sylor scored his second try after Gorge began the possession from inside its own tryzone with outside center Mike Tillman sprinting most of the way. The last two scores came from prop Brady Smith outmuscling his counterparts to get over the line and fullback Nick Kuhl exploiting an overload for the try.
Coming out of the half, Norfolk looked to grab the momentum as Cameron dotted down the ball in the corner after running in support of his teammate. Gorge responded with a crash ball score from Matias Cima and Norfolk countered with a superb individual effort by eightman Fred Wintermantel to make the tally 43-17.
In the final ten minutes, Tillman broke loose again and offloaded to Matias Cima for the try. The Blues battled until the end never letting up. Norfolk’s hard work paid off as Dutch Jones scored at the buzzer, but Gorge earned the MAC DI Championship, 48-22.
“It was definitely a very physical game, we stood up to them,” Norfolk head coach Chris Porter said. “Where Gorge took advantage of things was that their skill level with their backs really shined. In their forwards, their back row of Scotty [Wheeler], Josh [Brown], and Dustin [Meehan] really covered any time we tried to step inside. When they hit us, they were driving us backwards. They put in some big hits on our forwards and our backs that were cutting back inside. That’s what tipped the game in their favor.”
Commenting on his team’s play, DiMichele said, “Our forwards had a huge day, especially defensively, our back row covered the entire field. Brady Smith was an absolute monster delivering a lot of punishing runs and swallowing players on defense. Our backs were more explosive then they've ever been. From 9 through 15, there is so much speed and these guys are really playing some amazing rugby and putting together some incredible tries.”
As for the quarterfinals in Pittsburgh next weekend, Rocky Gorge will first play the Atlantic North and ARP Co-Champion, Old Blue. “We are expecting to compete against the toughest opponent Rocky Gorge has ever played,” DiMichele remarked. “Old Blue seems to be a strong experienced team and they've been consistently playing the best teams the east coast has to offer. We have to expect a very fast pace physical match and we have to stop their playmakers in the backs or at least slow them down. The entire club is looking forward to the challenge.”
The DII Championship was a rematch of last year’s conference semifinal between Wilmington and the Richmond Lions. Both clubs sported a 9-1 regular season record this year with Richmond’s only loss coming from a 39-33 brawl against the Delaware team last October. On Saturday, Wilmington jumped out to a 27-0 lead before Richmond was able to find its footing in the second half. Time ran out for the Lions as Wilmington celebrated as DII Champions, 32-24.
With plenty of familiarity between the two clubs, Wilmington stuck to its gameplan for the victory. “In the first half, on defense, we set up faster than they did and on attack, we had some lucky breaks,” head coach Bob Weir stated. “In the second half, it was a more even game with Richmond showing a lot of heart. I don’t think we were lucky to get a win, but I think that we worked to get a win.”
The first half was all Wilmington as Richmond struggled on both sides of the ball. Wilmington’s first points came from an ill-advised quick lineout from the Lions inside their own 22. The clearing kick was charged down with the ricochet getting picked up by Conor Mullarkey for the easy try. Lock Caoimhin De Barra chipped in the conversion and then preceded to score two tries and a penalty to end the half up 22-0.
Wilmington’s Rob Walls extended to lead to 27-0 about seven into the second half before Richmond could get on the board. In the 53rd minute, the Lions’ big eightman Alex Czajkowski powered through multiple defenders to cross the line for the try. The comeback was on as wing Caleb Balaban scored on an intercept in the 60th minute.
Unfortunately for Richmond, a yellow card minutes later put a huge dent in comeback bid. Taking advantage, reserve prop Chris Wiggins bulldozed in to extend the lead to 32-12. In the final five minutes, Richmond’s Dylan Morris and Balaban narrowed the gap to 32-24, but time ran out earning Wilmington the DII title.
After only four games in the spring leading up to the final, Coach Weir said, “the key for us is that we played our pattern and discipline. Phil Giordano was the player of the game. He had a fantastic day with a great work rate and production. He was in so many pieces of the game.”
Wilmington will face the dominant Village Lions in Pittsburgh for the National Quarterfinals. “We can only control what we can control: our actions,” Weir added. “We’re looking to probe the defense and take advantage of them when we can. When they have the ball, we’ll look to take it away from them.”
The hardest working teams of the Mid-Atlantic Championship weekend were in the DIII as Reading, Newport News, Rocky Gorge, and the Washington Renegades competed on Sunday in the semifinals and in the final on Sunday. Rocky Gorge extended its winning streak to seven games with a 34-23 victory over the Washington Renegades to make the final and Reading completed an epic comeback over Newport News to win in overtime, 76-55.
In the semifinal, Reading was down 43-14 at the half and scored six tries to one in the second half after Newport incurred two red cards for fighting. Reading tied it up at 50-50 at the end of regulation and outscored its opponent, 26-5 in the last twenty minutes. Reading President Dean Andes said, “it was probably the comeback of the century. As a club, we’ve never been down by 29 points. We kept our cool, played phase rugby, and just pulled together as group. We played our game, played physical rugby, and we did a great job as a team.”
In the DIII final between Rocky Gorge and Reading, the game was competitive in the first half as Gorge led 19-12 at the end of the period. Gorge put in three tries and a PK to two scores from Reading in the second half to take home the second trophy for the club.
“It was back and forth,” Gorge captain Chris Blieler said. “It was a tie game at 12-12 and we were able to pull ahead. Credit to our guys because late in the half, we spent a good 15 minutes on our goal line where we didn’t give up a try. The defense definitely stepped it up in the face of two early injuries. The guys came together to play some solid defense to keep us in the game in the first half and have the lead at halftime.”
William Lomax, Aki Raymond (2), Matt Phillips, and Bill Bush scored for Rocky Gorge and captain Chris Bleiler kicked two conversions and a penalty. For Reading, Thomas Sauppee (2), Brandon Weller, and Cody McMullen each had tries and Nathan Reed was good for one conversion.
“Our bench, especially Bill Bush and Tyler Tippett, stepped up when guys went down,” Bleiler said. “Aki [Raymond] had a tremendous game on the wing and Lomax had runs all over the place and making tackles everywhere. Cordell [Drummond] and his defense was a standout as he played all 160 minutes this weekend. It was really a team victory to be able to do what we did today.”
“It was a pretty close game, back and forth,” Andes stated. “[Gorge] had some real big speed on the outside, otherwise I thought it was a pretty evenly matched game.”
As for the DIII National Quarterfinals in Pittsburgh, both Rocky Gorge and Reading will prepare for the next round until told otherwise. A determination by USA Rugby should be made in the next 48 hours.
In the Division IV Mid-Atlantic Championship, Wilkes-Barre defeated Chambersburg, 61-24.