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The battle for supremacy in the Mid-South turned out to be everything it was billed as, even despite a rather lopsided start. Arkansas State was the undisputed better team in the first half, bullying Life with superior physicality and the boot of Patrick Sullivan.
“They came out and ran harder at us and tackled us harder than we did them,” said Life coach Dan Payne. “I would say the first 50 minutes, when you look at it objectively, they were much more physical than us.”
Sullivan, Arkansas State flyhalf and backup kicker, opened scoring with a penalty goal, and forward Jake Mizell extended the Red Wolves lead to 8-0 with an unconverted try. Life wing Cornelius Dirksen responded with an unconverted score of his own, but that would be the lone first-half highlight for the Running Eagles. Sullivan slotted a second penalty and converted a Dean Gericke try to round out the halftime tally of 18-5.
Despite being superior in the opening stanza, Arkansas State knew by studying earlier Life matches, that the Running Eagles were fully capable of a comeback.
“Halftime, we knew it was coming, right? We’d been watching and talking about Life, and they’re definitely a second-half team,” said Arkansas State coach Matt Huckaby. “They’ll wake up sometimes. LSU played them tough early, and it was really close with A&M at the half, so we knew it was coming. We knew to just buckle down and keep playing the game and keep fighting.”
With that in mind, Sullivan took a kick charged down by Blake White in for a try, which he converted himself to stretch Arkansas State’s lead to 25-5.
Down 20 on the road against the reigning South champ, Life, with a roster that boasts just six upperclassmen, showed the resilience of an experienced group. Senior flanker Garrett Lambert started the comeback bid with a try, and No. 8 Cam Dolan followed suit, pulling the Running Eagles within one converted score of the lead.
With five minutes to go, Life was pinged for a penalty, giving Sullivan another shot at the posts and a chance to put Life down two scores. An upperclassmen-laden team was relying on a sophomore’s boot.
“I just tried to not really think about the importance of the kick, and just try to line up and keep the repetition going, just doing what I’ve been doing in practice and just follow through and keep my head down,” said Sullivan.
It worked, as the Illinois native slotted his third penalty of the game to put put the Red Wolves just out of reach.
“He missed one right in front of the posts in the beginning of the game, and we got another shot, and I said, “No, take it again,” becuase I knew he had to get some confidence, and from there he was golden,” recalled Huckaby. “So proud of his effort. I swear ice water runs in that kid’s veins. He just kept his cool and played a great game.”
Life’s Kyle Grossheider added the Running Eagle’s fourth try (one more than ASU scored, by the way) but it wouldn’t be enough, as the Red Wolves held on for a 28-26 win.
“It’s a real big win. Gives us a lot of confidence I think, because I’ve been here for two years, and we’ve always played teams we could beat decently, not having to dig too deep for it,” said Sullivan, “but having a game against such a good team like Life, it means a lot to come out with a big win here.”
Though still lamenting about opportunity lost shortly after the defeat, Payne expressed pride in the way his team rebounded from a poor first half.
“That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of, just that no one gave up and they kept hammering and hammering, and we kept chipping away and coming back through the second half,” he said. “The guys collectively put oursleves in a hole to begin with, and just too far to come back out of it. I’m proud of our guys, in that they didn’t quit once, but we’ve got to use how we started and the lack of certain aspects of the game as a teaching opportunity.”
With Life and Arkansas State both looking poised to keep ascending up the collegiate rugby ladder, Saturday's barn burner could be the first of many more to come.
Tries: Mizell, Sullivan, Gericke
Cons: Sullivan (2)
Pens: Sullivan (3)
Tries: Dirksen, Lambert, Dolan, Grossheider
Cons: Cowley (3)