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It was conference championship weekend for USA Club Rugby and three DI teams joined the clubs from the Midwest and Atlantic North with entries to the regional round of the National Playoffs. In all three finals, the winning teams were down in the second halves and had to fight back to earn their spot in the next round.
In the Pacific Rugby Premiership Grand Final, Belmont Shore beat OMBAC, 52-29, to advance to the West Semifinal where they join the Austin Blacks who outlasted the Dallas Reds, 22-18, in the Red River championship. In the East, the Norfolk Blues ended Rocky Gorge’s reign as the Mid-Atlantic representatives at Regionals with a 29-21 victory. The Blues will play Mystic River in the quarterfinals while NYAC and the Chicago Lions battle in the other match.
Pacific Rugby Premiership
With a trip to the National Semifinals in Fort Worth, Texas at stake, the two top clubs in the PRP met in San Diego for the Grand Final and the game did not disappoint. Each team had their opportunities and scored in bunches. Belmont endured a potent OMBAC attack to come back twice and ultimately win, 52-29.
OMBAC got out to the early lead and Belmont Shore recovered late in the first half to trail 15-7 at the break. “We were a bit edgy [in the first half] and were defending quite well, but we had to defend for over 12 phases in patches,” Belmont head coach Ray Egan said. “I was confident that if we could just hang in and keep it to 15 points going into halftime, we had a chance. Pila Longi got a great breakaway try from nothing [before the half] and that settled us 15-7 at halftime.”
Belmont stormed out of halftime to score three tries in ten minutes for the 28-15 lead. “Into the second half, we got a great try straight off the gun with Danny Thomas and then banged in two quick tries in three minutes,” Egan stated. “It gave us a huge amount of go forward and it looked like we had the game in control. OMBAC made a few changes and hit back with two tries [to the 29-28 lead].”
“It was a rollercoaster but we had enough in the tank. I unloaded the bench and we finished very strong,” Egan added. That strength translated into four tries in the final 15 minutes for the 52-29 victory.
“I thought we done an awful lot of damage with our carries and defensively in the first half,” Egan said. “We controlled the ball when we had it and we made OMBAC work extra hard to get any sort of score. We blew them out physically over the 80 and emptied their tank early.”
With its trials this season, Belmont is playing its best rugby and has built up momentum and confidence going into the National Semifinals in the Fort Worth, Texas.
“It’s the semifinal at Nationals so doesn’t matter who you play,” Egan concluded. “Everyone is there on merit. We’ve played them a couple of times in the past. They have always been a strong pack, very strong set-piece oriented pack that can carry well and are just big physical boys. We have to match that. We have to watch the tape but it’s all about us at this point. We don’t know much about them so we have to worry about us now.”
Meeting Belmont Shore in Fort Worth will be the Austin Blacks, who defeated the rival Dallas Reds, 22-18, in the Red River championship. It was a long weekend for the conference as the teams played the semifinals on Friday before the final on Sunday. In the end, the Austin Blacks fought back from an 18-12 second-half deficit to beat the Reds, 22-18.
“It was a very evenly matched game, back and forth,” Austin head coach Tane Jerecivich said. “Every possession was an opportunity and if you squandered your opportunity, the other team capitalized. It was a very close first half. We kicked three penalties and the Reds scored a try and kicked a couple of penalties [to lead 11-9 at halftime].”
The Blacks added a penalty to begin the second half, but Dallas extended its lead to 18-12 with a pushover try. Adam Armstrong notched his fifth penalty in the 62nd minute and the score remained at 18-15 until the last ten minutes. Austin finally gained the advantage in the 71st minute when the forwards pounded at the goal line and a quick ball to the backs saw Teddy Terezis take a good angle through a gap to score at the post. Armstrong’s final conversion was true for the 22-18 win.
“In the second half, our fitness was a little bit better and we managed in the last 20 minutes to push on,” Jerecivich added. “It could have gone either way and we are very fortunate to get the last chance of possession and hold them out. They had a chance to win it at the end, but they ended up making a mistake at the line and the final whistle blew. It was very close.”
With a steady rain falling all game long at Morven Park in Leesburg, Va., the Norfolk Blues unseated Rocky Gorge’s three-year rule as DI MAC Champions with a 29-21 victory. The clubs traded blows back and forth and the Blues ended the game with two tries in the final ten minutes to advance to the East Regionals.
“Words can’t describe how good this feels and how proud I am of the team,” Norfolk head coach Chris Porter said. “Last year, we took a pretty good beating from Gorge in the playoffs and they showed what a class act was all about and what true champions are. This year when we came out in the fall, we said we wanted to play a full 80. That was our whole focus all season long. Today, we proved that all the hard work we put into it has worked out and we played the full 80 [to get the win].”
The first half ended with Norfolk up 8-7, but Gorge’s Nick DiMichele dove in for the try soon after halftime for the 14-8 lead. The Blues’ Eric Hagen scored off a charge down to regain the advantage. Gorge’s next chance at points bounced off the upright, but Matt Carroll recovered a failed clearance kick for a try to go up 21-15.
The last ten minutes proved to be key to the game. “We had some breaks in those last ten minutes,” Porter said. “We put a kick deep and we noticed that they were playing tight in the line not respecting the kick. Our replacement winger made a great tackle on Nick Kuhl who usually slips that tackle. We stayed down there for the last ten minutes inside their 22.”
Hagen completed his hat-trick in the 75th minute with a forwards try and Justin Menke added one more a couple of minutes later to cement the MAC championship victory.
The Blues’ win is a culmination of an incredible and emotional season, especially for captain Hagen who unfortunately lost his wife in a tragic car accident last fall. “I’m a man of few words and I can’t ever picture a group of guys I’d rather be on the field with,” Hagen said.
“In a game like this today, there was absolutely no quit in them. Everybody here saw that in the last ten minutes and I’ve seen it throughout the season. I love these guys and I know they love me. It’s been an emotional year. For the hardest moments of my life, these guys are the ones who picked me up. In the toughest times out on this field today, they picked us all up, we finished the game, and won,” Hagen concluded.
Norfolk will play Mystic River in Obetz, Ohio in two weeks while the Chicago Lions draw NYAC in the second national quarterfinal.