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The two best teams in Division II this season set up an incredible rematch of last year’s National Championship between UM-Duluth and UW-Whitewater at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Seeking a third title in a row, the Fighting Penguins fought a defensive struggle against a potent Warhawk squad to win 25-19 bringing the trophy back home to Minnesota. UM-D exhibited a defensive masterpiece until the last two minutes when UW-W put in two desperation tries. In total, UM-D’s defense only gave up four tries in the playoffs with three coming in the last two minutes of the games.
With numerous infractions throughout the game, which included three yellow cards against UW-W, the game lacked continuity and favored UM-D’s playing style. The Fighting Penguins kept the ball within their forwards and used possession as a weapon against the Warhawks. UW-W attempted to use its fast and talented backline to stretch the field, but either turned it over or penalized when trying to do so. It seemed as though the Warhawks were rushing into miscues and UM-Duluth waited for its opportunities to strike.
UM-D head coach Jeramy Katchuba told Rugby Today that the key to the game was defense. “It was 1 through 15 playing suffocating defense. We took away their strengths and controlled the ball with our forwards. Once we got them sucked in, we went out and gave our backs some space... It was very Midwest rugby. Both of us are aggressive, we tackle well, we have a fair amount skill, and we play old school rugby. They are a great team and they pushed us harder than any team has this fall.
“We played as a full team,” Katchuba remarked. “We had a few that stood out, but our team effort was there. When we brought our subs on, they raised the level of the game. We made a couple lineup changes and the guys stepped up and played really well. I’m extremely impressed on how we played.”
The scoring started five minutes into the game with an UM-D forwards try by lock Connor Gleason. Flyhalf Trace Bolstad missed the conversion and UW-W’s Tim Grams answered with a penalty kick about four minutes later.
Leading 5-3, UM-D took advantage of a bad pass deep in UW-W’s territory to score an easy try. Attempting to swing the ball out inside the 22, UW-W’s Jack Healy passed behind Levi Van Lanen, where UM-D’s Austin Haecherl snagged the loose ball. The inside center offloaded to a surging Logan Hanson for the try.
In the remainder of the half, Grams and Bolstad exchanged penalty kicks with UM-D’s penalty as result of a yellow card to UW-W’s Zack Smith for repeated infringement in the 38th minute. At the break, the Fighting Penguins held a firm 15-6 lead keeping the swift Warhawk offense in check.
UM-D came out of the intermission with the man advantage and momentum on its side. Unfortunately, the Fighting Penguins were not able to gain any additional ground on their opponent. Penalty trouble continued for UW-W when it was hit for its second yellow card of Riley Peckham in the 54th minute. No significant damage was inflicted during the man advantage and UW-W’s Grams even kicked a short-handed penalty to cut the lead to 15-9.
Once the teams were back at full strength, UM-D assembled an impressive string of over 15 phases that was capped by a spectacular finish by fullback Matt Martin. After an offload from Haecherl back inside to Martin, the fullback spun out of a tackle ultimately beating five defenders for the try.
Down 22-5 with 20 minutes remaining, UW-W pushed the issue on offense and unfortunately forced untimely errors. UM-D’s stout defense kept the enemy in front of them. With desperation setting in with less than ten minutes left, UW-W’s Robby Sindic was binned for diving over.
With all hope seemingly lost, the Warhawks rallied in the last two minutes. In the 78th minute, fullback Eric Pachowitz was the catalyst as he broke the line then dished to a streaking Garrett Shibilski for the try. After regaining possession after the ensuing kickoff, a UM-D penalty gave the ball back to UW-W. Pachowitz-Shibilski connection was alive again as the two hooked up with this time the No. 8 Sam Koerner slamming the ball for the try.
Unfortunately for UW-W, time ran out on the last play and the last second comeback fell short. As the final whistle sounded, the UM-D sideline erupted and joined the celebration of the pitch as the Fighting Penguins earned their third DII National Championship in a row.
Reflecting on the game, UW-W head coach Pat O’Connor said, “We weren’t able to get going like we had yesterday. The defense for UM-Duluth did a fine job on us. It was a tough game... We didn’t get our flow going. We would get it out to the wing and Alec [Treuthardt] could get 20 yards, but he wasn’t getting 80. To Duluth’s credit, they had some speedsters too who were good on defense coming over and cutting us off.”
On his team’s battle to the final whistle, O’Connor explained, “Our team didn’t give up. We didn’t roll over and say here’s the game. We kept fighting. We had three yellow cards so we were playing a man down for basically 30 minutes of the match and still managed to put points on the board... Everybody dug deep so when that final whistle blew, there was no energy left in them and that’s a huge credit to them. They know Robby [Sindic] is a huge part of the offense and with him off the field, they knew they had to step it up and they did.”
UM-D’s Logan Hanson was awarded the Most Valuable Player of the National Playoffs for his consistent all-around effort. Hanson and eightman Luc Desroches excelled in the final for Coach Katchuba. “Logan Hanson stood out all weekend. He played really well and he entered his name to be recognized on a higher level. He was unbelievable to offense and defense. Luc Desroches played phenomenal in both games. Today, he picked up his defense as he had him covering kicks more. We unleashed him on the defensive side of things. He made all his tackles and had good go-forward when he carried the ball.”
This championship is result of years of hard work and the validation of the UM-D program. “Our club has been around for 42 years now,” Katchuba added. “A lot of guys have put in time, commitment, and effort in those years to get us where we are today. This establishes us as a program. I’ve heard say in the past that we were a one year wonder and we’ve done it three years in the row. We’ve accused of being one-dimensional and here we are. If this is our one dimension, I’ll take it.”
With plenty of underclassmen on both clubs and excellent coaching, the prospect of seeing both UM-Duluth and UW-Whitewater return to the 2016 National Championship is a great possibility.