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With a 43-7 bashing of Arizona in the semifinals, Saint Mary’s College of California returns to the D1A National Championship for the fifth year in a row with its aim of bringing the title back to town. In Moraga, Calif., the Gaels dominated from the opening whistle scoring six tries and a penalty before the Wildcats could score in the final minute of play. Defense was paramount for Saint Mary’s and it hopes that it will continue against Life on Saturday.
When asked what the keys to the win were, Saint Mary’s coach Tim O’Brien said, “Defense, poise and capitalizing on our opponents errors... Defense has been a strong suit of ours. It doesn't always happen, but continually stifling attacks is pretty rewarding. Arizona's try was nice though we should have been prepared for the movement.”
With Saint Mary’s in its blue and red and Arizona in its whites, the Gaels kicked off to the Wildcats. After gaining possession, Saint Mary’s scored off its first touch as phase play and continuity paid dividends when Alec Baron dragged two defenders in for the try. With the boot, Dylan Audsley converted for the early 7-0 lead.
The Gael defense was superb with big hits and timely turnovers throughout the match. A scrum inside its own territory turned into a big break down the sideline for Saint Mary’s. A ruck penalty at the 22 allowed Audsley to tack on three more points with 30 minutes left in the half.
The teams battled for field position between the 22s. Arizona threatened to score soon after, but a missed pass stopped its momentum. Crisp passing and offloads proved too much for the Wildcats as the Gaels’ overload on the wing allowed Mike McCarthy to score. Audsley’s conversion was good for the 17-0 advantage.
Both squads had chances in the final 15 minutes of the half, but neither team could break through as the scored remained 17-0 at halftime.
Saint Mary’s dominance continued in the second half with four straight tries before Arizona could score in the end. Beginning with a turnover at the 22, Jack Carso scored the first points for the Gaels followed by a nifty pass by Holden Yungert to Alejandro Duran for the dive try. Audsley made both conversions for the 31-0 tally.
The Gaels continued to execute turning defense into offense. After a stolen lineout, SMC spun the ball wide and Aaron Matthews scored on the overload. With less than 15 minutes remaining and up 36-0, a Gael counterattack resulted in Mike Garrett try. Phase play went sideline to sideline before Vili Helu broke the line and offloaded to Garrett in support. Audsley’s final conversion was good to lead 43-0.
Arizona never gave up and played hard until the last whistle. Starting with a lineout, the Wildcats prevented the shutout when speedy Dante Weeks turned on the afterburners slicing through the Gael defense for the 50 meter try. Arizona made the conversion, but the game was decided long before. With the 43-7 triumph, Saint Mary’s will host the D1A National Championship against Life on Saturday.
Asked for his thoughts following the match, Arizona head coach Sean Duffy said, “Saint Mary's started well, really got some momentum and generated fast ball. When we did get possession, we worked in to their 22 numerous times but just couldn't execute and that's their defense and our mistakes... Saint Mary's does a great job taking advantage of mistakes and plays great defense, credit to them.”
Coach Duffy said that Arizona’s main takeaways from this game and postseason run is “that we are on the right track and that it's a great year for us going from second in D1AA in 2014 to now top four in D1A. Very few seniors playing for us so this is a good sign for the future.”
With the fifth D1A National Championship match in a row on Saturday, O’Brien said it has a lot to work on from now until Saturday. “It’s great to secure a win [against Arizona, but we are] very concerned about our errors, the majority unforced. Life will destroy us if we are careless and inefficient... To beat Life, you need to be at your very best in the most basic elements of the sport and combine it with bunch of luck.”
The D1A National Championship will be nationally televised on CBS Sports Network on Saturday May 6th at 4pm Pacific.