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Down by nine points at halftime in Greenville, S.C. Saturday, Minnesota-Duluth showed why it’s the best team in the nation by scoring three unanswered tries and shutting out UW-Whitewater in the second half to win a second straight National Championship, 24-14.
After a first half in which Whitewater played with tempo and momentum, Duluth Man of the Match eightman Jake Luetgers broke four tackles on a 60-meter try to shift the swing back to the Fighting Penguins. Duluth held its ground defensively and scored two more times en route to the title.
“Great game. Great defense by both teams. Fast paced, a lot of action,” UM-Duluth head coach Jeramy Katchuba said. “It was a full team effort today. We were short two men and we scored one of our tries there. Full team effort, everybody who came on played well. We travelled with 34 and we needed everybody for the win today.”
The game started with the Warhawks maintaining possession early, but it was the Penguins who scored first. In the eighth minute, Luetgers had a nice run that set up quick ball movement out to wing Austin Haecherl for the try. Flyhalf Trace Bolstad missed the initial conversion, and Duluth led, 5-0.
Whitewater returned the favor to take a 7-5 advantage two minutes later when prop Brandon Lopez finished off a series of forward phases at the tryline. The Warhawks extended the lead to nine points as wing Matt Drzewiecki broke the Duluth line with a beautiful inside ball to beat two defenders on his way to the tryzone. Scrumhalf Tim Grams converted both of his kicks for the 14-5 lead.
For the last five minutes of the half, the Penguins threatened to close the gap by working inside the Warhawk 22, but Whitewater’s stout defense was great, and its play was punctuated by a big hit by outside center Robert Sindic. At the half, Whitewater led Duluth, 14-5.
At halftime, Duluth was in the unfamiliar position of being behind. Coach Katchuba told to his players, “to just settle down. We were making a lot of uncharacteristic errors, missing some tackles here and there. Really just told them to settle down and try to focus on our game. Get around the field and play as a team.”
The momentum immediately swung to Duluth a minute into the second half when Luetgers stormed 60 meters down the sideline for a try. On what he saw on that run, Luetgers said, “after the kick reception, I was looking left and no one was there so I decided to go left. Didn’t have any support but it ended up working out.”
The conversion was missed and the lead was only four points. Whitewater got the ball back and pounded at the tryline, but it was Duluth’s turn to show defensive prowess.
The Penguins regained the lead at the 57th minute when outside center Logan Hanson made a heads up play on the five-meter quick tap for the try. Bolstad’s conversion was successful, and Duluth was in front, 17-14.
Neither team relented down the stretch as the physical play increased. Duluth had a chance to improve its lead with a penalty kick; however, the ball sailed wide. Duluth put the nail in the coffin in the 71st minute when wing Eric Wellman poached the ball and flanker Luc Desroches took a great line off the ruck for a 25 meter try. Scrumhalf Cody Christensen, kicking for an injured Bolstad, made the conversion for the 24-14 lead with eight minutes left.
The Penguins played ball control in the remaining minutes and relied on their defense to close out the game. With no time remaining, Christensen kicked the ball out and the referee blew the whistle to end the game. The Duluth sideline erupted and was victorious earning their second national championship.
“Our game plan was control the ball and keep it out of our end of the field and in theirs so we could score,” UW-Whitewater head coach Pat O’Connor stated.
“We did that in the first half and the boys did everything I needed. The second half started off with that quick score off the kickoff, which is what they like to do. Then we had a series of knock-ons. We would be moving the ball, putting pressure, then we would knock it on. It was still a game. They got up 17-14 and then they got that next try and we could still come back. We kept battling, but it was not our day to win.”
“Duluth is a good team, and I said it was going to be a close game. Duluth knows they were in a match today. Duluth rolled over some teams and we rolled over some teams to get here, too. But, today, both teams walked off that field with nothing left, and that’s the way it should be.”
On his opponent’s play, Coach Katchuba said, “They are a great team, and that was a hard-fought match. It was the toughest match we’ve been in the last couple of years. When you get into something like that, I’m happy we are the winner, but it’s unfortunate that they played hard and they deserved to win. We got lucky today. They are well coached. I love their style of play.”
MVP Luetgers was stellar scoring a total of three tries this weekend.
“It was a really tough game. They played really tough post defense, and we had to adjust in the second half and channel out a little bit, said Luetgers. “We had to change up our game. We love to smash it inside, but we had to swing it out a little bit this game.”
Coach Katchuba could not say more about Luetgers’ play this weekend.
“He’s on another level. We were down two people, and we had to move him into prop. You could tell that he said we are not going to lose this game. He was making line breaks for us all over. The 60-meter run to start off the second half gave us a lot of extra energy we needed.
“The guys work extremely hard for us. We started with two-a-day practices back in August, and they haven’t stopped working since, but that’s happened the last three years. Second title this year, but it started three years ago when we got a good group of players that came in and said we are going to do everything it takes to build a program and not a team.”