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After a grueling two-day playoff hosted by UNC-Charlotte, Furman was crowned the Southern Rugby Conference champion, having defeated UNC Wilmington 23-17 in the title game. The Paladins made it the final by blowing out East Carolina in the Saturday semifinal, 63-7, and UNC-W edged Appalachian State in overtime, 23-17.
This is Furman’s first Southern title, snapping UNC-W’s three-year reign as conference champion. After earning three DIII National Championships, the Paladins moved up to DII in 2010. The start of the DII program was met with limited success, but in 2012, the squad finished fourth, and last year, coach John Roberts’ side placed third.
UNC-W rode a 24-game conference winning streak going into the match on Sunday. The streak included a 48-38 victory against Furman earlier in the season, in which UNC-W dominated the scrums. The Paladin win in the final marked the Seahawks’ first ever Southern 15s loss. With the title in hand, Furman advances the DII Regional Playoffs Nov. 15-16.
“I always tell the team you learn more about yourselves in defeat than in victory,” said Roberts. “What that loss [to UNC-W earlier this season] did for us was to expose some weaknesses. We worked on those for two weeks. We worked on our scrums and we worked to the flyhalf-center channel where they were breaking free. We said if we can hold our scrums and win those and defend that channel, then we can beat them. We did that and we defended those pretty well. They still found ways to score, but our game plan worked for the most part. We knew that going in it would be a close game because they are just a really good squad.”
“The game was really not decided until RJ [Bradley] took that lineout out at the very end. It was back and forth. There were a couple of times when we were up 18-3 and I thought we’re kind of comfortable. Every time we got a little comfortable, they came back and scored and made it tight. There was no turning point, it was just momentum one way or the other.”
The title game started with both clubs trading penalty kicks, and Furman led early, 6-3. The first try of the game came at the 25th minute, when Furman prop Jeff Tonge just got into the corner of the try zone for the score. The Paladins challenged UNC-W within the 10-meter line multiple times towards the end of half, but the Seahawks defense stood strong. The tally remained quiet until halftime, and Furman had the advantage, 11-3.
The teams battled to a standstill until halfway in the second half, when Furman flyhalf Jacob Milchuck dummied the Seahawks defenders to dot the ball down. Milchuck converted his own try to take an 18-3 lead.
With 12 minutes to go, UNC-W woke up and got back into the match. UNC-W lock Cole Shanelic pushed the ball in from 10 meters out. Colin Frazier made the conversion to get within eight points to 18-10. Furman responded with a pick-and-go by freshman flanker RJ Bradley for the try.
With Furman up 23-10 with three minutes remaining, UNC-W picked the ball from a scrum and saw an opening on the weak side. After outpacing the flanker, the ball made into the hands of fullback Tyler Doffey, who broke a 40-meter try. Frazier connected his kick to get within a try of the lead at 23-17.
UNC-W had opportunities in the final minute of the game to either tie or win with two lineouts at Furmans’s five-meter line. With seconds left, Furman’s Bradley caught the overthrow and kicked the ball out of bounds as time expired. The referee blew the whistle and Furman celebrated its first SRC title.
“Furman played well and our team played exceptionally hard,” UNC-W head coach Jeremy Tominack said. “We were very resilient through multiple injuries. We didn’t quit. We had a chance and they created those chances. Our backs were to the wall and you got to admire that from a group of college students.”
Third Place: Appalachian State vs East Carolina
The third-place game matched Appalachian State against rival East Carolina, and the Mountaineers walloped the Pirates 55-17. Appalachian State head coach Dan Van Dreisen played his seniors and young players for most of the game.
“It was an all around good game for us. We dominated," said Van Driesen. "A lot of our young guys got the whole game to play and seniors played the whole game. It was cool to see our younger guys dominate in a game.”
Appalachian State scored nine tires on the way to victory from lock Thomas Longo, scrumhalf Jacob Barber (2), prop Dylan Reid, fullback Andrew Boyea, eightman Ross Miller, wing Tayvonne Cox, prop Sam Sherman, and flanker Anthony Santelle. Longo made four kicks in the first half, and Miller converted his own try in the second half.