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Rocky Gorge's Nick Kuhl fends Wilmington's Kevin Wiggins. Evan Lappen photo

For the last four years, one of the most contested rivalries in club rugby has played out in the DII Mid-Atlantic Conference Championship between Rocky Gorge and Wilmington. Each club has seen their season end at the feet of their opponent with the victor advancing to the National Championship. This year mirrored last year’s match as Wilmington built a 17-8 halftime lead only to see Rocky Gorge come back to score three tries in the second half to earn the 34-22 victory.

“Just like last year, they took it to us in the first half and then we were able to figure it out and get back out after them,” Rocky Gorge head coach Will Brewington stated. “At halftime, I looked at a shocked, stunned group of players and we needed to get our emotion back into it, stop making mistakes, control the ball, play in their half, and, boom, they went out and did it.”

“Wilmington is a special case because of the rivalry that exists between the two clubs. Because of the matches that have been played in the past four years between the two with so much at stake, we have to take it a little personal with them sometimes.”

Gorge came out on offense almost immediately pounding at the goal line, but Wilmington repelled each salvo of the sustained attack until it was out of trouble. Unfortunately for Gorge, it had to go to the bench early as flanker Nick DiMichele left the game due to injury.

Wilmington drew first blood when Gorge flyhalf attempted to chip the ball up field to the wing, but the Wilmington wing Todd Gallen caught the ball at a full sprint and streaked down the sideline for the try. Wing Patrick Goldring missed the conversion to give Wilmington the early 5-0 lead.

Gorge missed its first attempt at a penalty kick, but flyhalf Nick Kuhl made his second from beyond the 22. Gorge took the lead to 8-5 in the 27th minute as captain and No. 8 Josh Brown took the ensuing kickoff across midfield and the ball was spun wide to wing Derek Chell who raced 40 meters for the try.

About six minutes later, the momentum swung in Wilmington’s direction as they used their forward’s size and strength to push a rolling maul in for the score. Wilmington extended their lead to 17-8 at halftime as the forwards got it close with successive phase play and hooker David Wolf finished with the try.

Down by nine at the half, Gorge found themselves in a similar position. Last year, Wilmington led 24-10 at halftime and Gorge came out with 24 unanswered points to win the game. History seemed to repeat itself this year. During the intermission, Gorge captain Brown said, “Coach said that we are going to see teams that make plays and score tries and even get up on us. It’s about who can actually come back with 40 minutes left and we were able to do it.”

Gorge came out the half fired up and three phases after the kickoff, wing Jay Benedetti raced down the sideline only to be tackled out of bounds at the five meter line. Wilmington’s lineout was called not straight and after the Gorge scrum, Brown scored off a forward ball at the try line. Kuhl made the conversion to cut the lead to 17-15.

Wilmington padded their lead to 22-15 by taking advantage of a stolen ball inside Gorge’s 22 and it was passed through hands to inside center Conner Mariani who powered past two defenders for the try. Gorge responded in the 51st minute with a line break by fullback Greg Salvucci. Two phases later, Kuhl used his creativity to chip it to the corner and caught it on one bounce for the untouched try. With the conversion, Gorge came all the way back to tie the game at 22-22.

About five minutes later, Gorge regained the lead after a stolen five-meter scrum and Brown scored his second try dragging two defenders with him into the try zone. At the 60-minute mark, Gorge kept fueling the fire as outside center Ethan Reese broke the line for a 30-meter run and lock James Rehak dove for the try after an offload from prop Bryan Perez. Kuhl split the uprights with conversion and grew the lead to 12 points, 34-22.

Gorge began to bring in its subs and Wilmington did the same to get fresh legs for the last quarter of the match. Each club had opportunities for points, but both defenses held under pressure. Wilmington fought valiantly to close the gap with an intense effort in Gorge territory in the last 10 minutes, but the defense kept its composure and ground. As the game came to a close, two worthy opponents concluded another epic battle with Rocky Gorge claiming the MAC Championship for the second year in a row.

Brown appreciates and respects the annual rivalry with Wilmington. “It’s pretty unique because the only time we play them is when both of our seasons are on the line. It’s always a high intensity match and, not to mention, they are just a good all around team. They have great forwards and backs that can spin the ball wide. It’s a good challenge every year and it’s a shame we only play them when both of our seasons are on the line.”

Rocky Gorge will face the winner of the Southern Conference Championships at the National East Regionals in Charlotte, N.C. on May 30th. Charlotte, Atlanta Old White, Chattanooga, and Orlando will battle for the Southern Champion title on May 16 and 17 in Augusta, Ga.