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Connie Hatfield photo

The San Diego Legion held on to beat the Utah Warriors, 31-24, Sunday at Torero Stadium in San Diego, Calif. The Legion built an early lead, conceded it, regained it, rebuilt it, and struggled to hold on until the final whistle.

San Diego didn’t let Utah catch its breath out of the gate, pinning the ball deep in the attacking end. Further the Legion probed with methodical driving maul, leading to a short pick-and-drive score from Sione Tu’ihalamaka. Tadgh Leader slotted the conversion, putting the home team up 7-0 with just a couple of minutes gone.

The Warriors had the opportunity to get their first score on the board when Tongan flyhalf Kurt Morath lined up a penalty about 10 meters from the touch line and 22 meters from the goal line. The kick didn’t find its target, though, leaving Utah scoreless.

The Legion pack made another display of power near the nine-minute mark, driving the Utah scrum off the mark to earn a penalty. The Legion kicked that ball to touch and drove over a maul from the point-blank lineout. Tony Purpura dotted it down. Leader missed the conversion – 12-0.

Utah’s first real threat with ball in hand came in the 17th minute when scrumhalf Joseph Nicholls quick tapped a pair of penalties, and the Warriors were able to gain some ground while the surprised San Diego defense scrambled to organize. The drive ended when flanker Kenny Scott was held up in the maul and turned over.

Utah’s pressure was finally rewarded in the 28th minute after a long series of pick-and-jams near inside the attacking five meter. It came off a penalty that was kicked to the corner. The Warriors won the lineout and ran a peel play to Lance Williams. Eventually, it was Nicholls picking and bouncing off a tackler into pay dirt. Morath converted, cutting the deficit to five with 10 minutes to play in the half.

The Warriors looked like they might be away for another when Jared Whippy went for an interception with nothing but grass in front of him, but the center knocked on, resulting in a penalty. Utah made two more probes in the next several minutes, but both ended in knock-ons after a long stretch of impenetrable defense.

A third foray resulted in a lock Korey Olsen being held up. Off the ensuing scrum, though, Saia Uhila took things into his own hands, picking and going himself, bursting through the outstretched arms of Legion flanker Devin Short and the core of Leader for a try. Morath slotted the easy conversion, putting the visitors up two with a minute to play.

Utah won the kickoff and tried to run the clock out, but the ball was turned over and the Legion saw the change to try and steal the lead back going into the break. Through several phases of a penalty advantage, the Utah defense held, until Short got the ball right on the wing and fought it to ground as he was being pushed into touch. Leader missed the tough conversion, and San Diego carried a 17-14 lead into the break.

The Warriors regained the momentum at the onset of the second half, with Paul Lasike putting in a couple of punishing runs to help drive them into the attacking five meter. Olsen would pick and get held up, resulting in an attacking scrum. Utah bailed San Diego out with a forward pass, though, ending the threat. Morath teed up a shot at goal in the 54th minute, but that too ended innocuously.

San Diego caught a break a couple of minuts later, when JP du Plessis was able to tap a partially charged down box kick from Nate Augspurger straight into the hands of Anthony Salaber, who ran in for the fluke try. Leader tacked on two ore, putting the Legion 10 points clear with 23 minutes to play.

Leader would miss a shot at goal before Morath got his next. This time Morath was good, pulling the Warriors within a converted try at 24-17 with 15 minutes left.

The Legion set up camp in the attacking end, attempting to chip away at the try line. After a couple of set pieces and little yardage gained, Leader opted for a cross kick, which he weighted perfectly for Ryan Matyas to run on to. The Arizona product cashed the check, and Dylan Audsley converted, making it 31-17 with just over 10 minutes on the clock.

Utah got back in it with a try similar to its first. After a scrum penalty, reserve scrumhalf Ben Nicholls, Joseph’s older brother, quick tapped and ran for the line. He didn’t score right away, but would careen his way into the try zone for the score. The conversion was nailed quickly, cutting the deficit to seven with about four minutes to go.

Utah would get the ball back and even possess it in the attacking end, but the frenetic pace ended with a knock on, delivering the win to the home team.

San Diego 31
Tries: Tu’ihalamaka, Purpura, Short, Salaber, Matyas
Cons: Leader (2), Audsley

Utah 24
Tries: ‘Uhila, J. Nicholls, B. Nicholls
Cons: Morath (3)
Pens: Morath