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Even with rain in the forecast, the D1A Liberty Challenge was a resounding success. The seven matches showcased the talent and ability of the conference bringing 14 teams to Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn.
With the first match starting at 9 am, exciting rugby was on display all day with Tufts versus Delaware to start and Northeastern against Cortland to finish. Strong defensive efforts earned wins for multiple teams and Fordham pulled off a big upset of AIC in the penultimate match of the day. All in all, the spirit of rugby in the Northeast is thriving in the Liberty Conference.
“When we ultimately decided to form the Liberty Conference, this is the type of exciting rugby we expected,” Liberty commissioner Andrew Gheraldi said. “Each game had lead changes, exciting individual efforts, great team efforts. This was an awesome way to cap our inaugural season and we anticipate it getting better from here.”
Tufts vs Delaware
To start the day, Tufts and Delaware battled toe-to-toe early, but the Jumbos dominated the second half for the 27-17 win. After an encouraging start by Tufts, their starting scrumhalf Sam Hollingsworth went down with an injury about 15 minutes in. After shuffling the lineup moving the freshman wing to scrummie, the teams played to a 10-10 tie at the half.
In the second half, Tufts broke the stalemate scoring 17 straight points before Delaware scored late. Game MVP Jimmy Carney dotted down two tries in the match and Jake Garrell, Cormac McAdams, and Henry Seidel each added one more.
Head coach Tom Clark indicated that the key to the victory was defense. “We really shut them down and the points just eventually came. They were threatening in our end and had a couple of moments where we had our back to the goal line, but we held our ground. We played really good team defense, probably the beast we played all season.”
Although the season was a grind with injuries and challenging opponents, Clark was pleased with Tufts’ first season in D1A. “We are really happy with how it came out. For us to finish 0.500 in our first year up is a testament to how hard the guys worked. They guys put in the work and I think it showed on the field.”
UMass vs Stony Brook
Despite their 1-6 regular season record, Stony Brook gave UMass all it could handle, but the Minutemen bounced back in the second half to take the 26-19 victory. The Seawolves led 14-12 at the half, however, UMass broke thorugh for three tries in the first 20 minutes of the second half for the twelve point lead. Stony Brook cut the advantage to seven with 15 minutes left, but the UMass defense was stout and held on for the win.
Speaking with Rugby Today after the match, UMass head coach Phil Cicarrelli said, “Despite the pressure put on us by Stony Brook, we kept our composure. Stony Brook played very well and had we hit the panic button, the result would have been different. I was really impressed with our senior leadership on the field, players like Mike Ruther, playing in his fourth consecutive bowl game really had a calming effect on the boys."
Sophomore Jake Parla, junior Luc Mitchell, sophomore Ben Capra, and junior Terry Cullen scored for UMass with sophomore David Buchanan converting three of his kicks. In the loss, Jared Hudson and Joe Muller scored for the Seawolves.
Albany vs Fairfield
After enduring a difficult season with multiple players playing out of position, it all came together for Fairfield on Saturday. Unfortunately for Albany, the Red Ruggers awoke for a 61-7 blowout to give the home crowd something to cheer for.
“We played a good game of footy, #1 through #15,” Fairfield coach Ben Kelley said. “A lot of play in transition and open field play where the boys were connecting. It’s been a challenging season, but to culminate it with today’s effort, it was outstanding. It’s a really good feeling for the boys and our program.”
“We didn’t have a great season and we ended up beating ourselves in a lot of games this year,” coach Marc Downes said. “We have had some really special players that did the true rugby thing to step up and play out of position... We came together and there was some good gelling amongst the boys today. The ball in the loose was good and honestly, our attitude was 100% different today.”
Rhode Island vs Syracuse
After going 1-4 to open the season, Rhode Island righted the ship to end the year on a three-game winning streak. At the Challenge, URI had to work against a tough Syracuse squad in a match where points were hard to come by. The Hammerheads led 5-3 at the half, but the Rams came back with tries by Chris Hayes and Shawn Grenier after the break. In the end, the Rams defense was key to the 17-12 victory.
“In the first half, we dominated possession but couldn’t make use of it,” URI head coach Warren Boothman said. “In the second half, we got a little better at handling and moving the ball. Syracuse has a strong pack and in the second half, we took it into loose play and moved it around more taking away from their forward strength. We moved it better on them, which opened up space for our backs.”
Boothman attributed the win to a solid defensive effort. “We kept them from mounting any real attack with their back line. Every time they moved to the backs we said, ‘good, let’s go get them’. The defense was coming up hard and usually making the tackles behind the gain line.”
Competing in the Liberty Conference has been positive for URI. “I’m glad we are in D1A and it’s better competition week after week,” Boothman concluded. “We learned very quickly that everybody is a tough game and it’s a consistently higher quality of game.”
Binghamton vs UConn
In a battle of heavyweights from the Empire and New England divisions, Binghamton and UConn went blow for blow for 80 minutes in rainy conditions. UConn held an early lead before the Devils countered for the 20-12 advantage at intermission. Although the Huskies outscored Binghamton 17-12 in the second half, the Devils did just enough for the 32-29 win.
According the Binghamton head coach Sebastien Lacombe, "it mostly was a 'forwards game' due to the rather harsh weather conditions, with inspiring performances particularly from flanker McKenna and lock Stannilus to consistently carry the team beyond the gain line, while others, notably hooker Ambrosino, resorted to take care of more 'obscure' defensive tasks.
"Even though, the whole team is to be praised for its efforts and commitment particularly on defense, it was how the players presented themselves with calmness under pressure," Lacombe added. "No doubt that the experience provided by a mostly senior squad was a critical factor here, especially after the almost same squad won the Empire Conference championship last year."
Brian Burke (2), Pierce Butler, Jason McKenna, and Raymond Henry scored for Binghamton with flyhalf Brandon Healy tacking on two conversions and a penalty.
Fordham vs AIC
In the only game featuring a challenger from outside the conference, Fordham bounced back after a tough loss last week to beat D1AA power, AIC, 13-10. Defense was paramount in the contest and the Rams limited the Yellowjackets' high-powered offense to only two tries. A pair of penalties by Finlay Froggatt gave Fordham the 6-5 lead and a line break by Nathan Fisher provided the Rams enough room for the win in the second half.
“Fordham played their brand of Bronx rugby,” Fordham coach Sean McCarthy said. “Defense was great, but it was absolutely a team effort. Our boys played with every bit of heart and they left it all out there. [After leading 6-5 at the half,] the boys went out and played an absolute ferocious defensive game led by the captain and Man of the Match, Logan McIntyre.”
After a satisfying season and capping it off with win against AIC, McCarthy was proud to say, “Bronx rugby is back. We finished 9-2 so it was great season.”
Northeastern vs Cortland
In order to complete its undefeated season, Northeastern had only one obstacle left, a clash with Liberty surprise Cortland. In the final Challenge match of the day, the Huskies wore down the Wolfpack for the 42-10 win.
“Cortland was extremely physical on defense, they held us at bay for a long while before we opened up the game a little bit,” NU head coach Ed Tubridy said. “We stuck to our offensive structure and eventually wore them down. We got in behind them and once we got a couple of scores, the game got away.”
Sean McElhinney and Liam Reithofer-Taylor each scored a pair of tries and BJ Keebaugh and Alex Tiarks joined them in the endzone. David De Luzuriaga contributed with two penalties and a conversion and Darren Chan also chipped in two conversions.
Describing the 2017 season, Tubridy said that it has exceeded all expectations. “Unbelievable. All the work the last of years has paid off. We are definitely on the right track and are very happy with what we are doing and what direction we are going in.”