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Saturday’s cold and rainy weather turned into a great Sunday for rugby in Sandston, Va. for the DI Mid-Atlantic Conference Championship between the Potomac Exiles and the Norfolk Blues. Missed opportunities plagued Norfolk, and the Exiles capitalized on those openings to win their first MAC title, 26-18. Potomac inside center Matias Cima was stellar with his boot, connecting on four penalty kicks and two conversions. Both clubs looked to be evenly matched as they both played close games with their semifinal opponents, the Schuylkill River Exiles and the Baltimore-Chesapeake Brumbies.
“We are obviously really happy,” Potomac head coach Chris Mahony said. “The boys worked really hard to get to this point and gave themselves the opportunity. At halftime, we just had to believe in our game and believe in the fact that people worked really hard in terms of their fitness. They came through in the second half. We still let ourselves down at times, giving away possession in really silly ways, sort of unforced errors. The most pleasing thing was that we won whilst playing nowhere near the level we expect, so there is so much room for improvement.”
The first half came down to which club had the more accurate kicker. A total of six kicks were attempted in the period with Norfolk’s flyhalf John Cameron going two-for-four and Potomac’s Cima making both of his kicks. Norfolk made both of kicks at the third and 23rd minutes.
At the 27th minute, the Exiles were yellow carded for repeated infringements, but Potomac’s defense kept Norfolk from scoring any points with the man advantage. And, with a man down, Potomac still got its first points of the match splitting the uprights in the 30th minute. Once they were back at full strength, the Exiles kicked to tie the score at 6-6 after a scrum penalty to end the half.
A minute into the second half, Potomac took its first lead of the match when Cima made his third penalty from the right side just outside the 22. With the lead and momentum, the Exiles scored the game’s first try nine minutes later when Potomac got inside the 22 with the help of penalties, and scrumhalf Matt Quigley crossed the line to the right of the posts. The Exiles kept the foot on the gas in the 53rd minute as fullback Trevor Tanifum caught a chip kick on the fly from Quigley to score in the corner. With both kicks converted, Potomac led 23-6.
The momentum shifted to the Blues to get them back into the game. Flanker Kevin Mott scored as a result of an offload from scrumhalf Dutch Jones in the 56th minute, and Jones took one in himself from a quick tap and go from 10 meters out with eight minutes left to make the score 26-18.
In crunch time, Norfolk desperately tried to create offense, but couldn’t keep possession with multiple turnovers and penalties. In the final minutes, the Exiles played ball control with their forwards and made their final penalty kick as time expired. With the 26-18 victory, the Potomac Exiles earned their first DI MAC Championship and will advance to the regional round of the National Playoffs.
“We didn’t finish the way we liked,” Norfolk head coach Chris Porter stated. “We started strong and took it to them right off the bat and got them on the back foot. We put a lot of pressure on them. We spent a lot of time in the first half in their area, but didn’t get a lot of points. Six points isn’t going to beat to Potomac, so we needed some tries, not penalty kicks. We couldn’t put it through, so it started a little rough there. We had a rough patch in the second half with 17 points to them with nothing in return. That woke us up and in the last 20, we started playing really well again attacking the way we like. But in the end, we just didn’t do enough to win.
“We didn’t take advantage of being in their zone and when they got into our zone, they took advantage of it. Matias Cima, his foot was on fire today hitting any kick. We told our guys if you get penalized, he is going to put points on the board and that’s what he did. They took advantage of our indiscretions and put points on the board against us.”
According Potomac team captain Owen Lentz, the depth of the Exiles side was one of the main keys to victory. “The guys who came onto the field were able to put up their hands and perform. Amin [Azizi] came onto the field and immediately had a break and that put us on the front foot. Players like him and anyone who steps onto the field doesn’t make our team weaker, it makes our team stronger. It’s such a huge difference.”
Potomac will wait to see whom they will play in Charlotte, N.C. in the National Regionals at the end of May. “We are obviously expecting a step up in competition,” Mahony said. “The boys will celebrate this and it is completely appropriate, but we got to realize that we got to lift our game further if we want to be competitive countrywide."