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Coast Guard hands UMass first loss of season

The oddly-shaped rugby ball is known to take some strange hops and the University of Massachusetts club rugby team felt the misfortune of that last Saturday at Coast Guard Academy. The Minutemen look to bounce back this weekend against Rhode Island.

On a blustery day in New London, Conn., the wind played a considerable role pushing the Bears out to an early lead that they would not concede. Thanks to a few miscues by the Minutemen down the stretch, Coast Guard handed UMass its first loss of the season 26-11.

Though the loss disappointed UMass coach Al Baker’s team, the Bears strong effort did not surprise him.     

 “I know the coach and I knew they would play a hard game,” Baker said. “They were a little more ready. They played a tighter game.”

The two squads battled for possession at the onset of the match. Six minutes into play, with the wind at their backs, the Bears caught a break when they booted the ball past a line of forwards to the Minutemen’s back players.

A strong gust caused the ball to carom off the pitch in an unexpected way sending fullback Clark Hoopes awry and creating an opening for an ambitious Coast Guard player to make the recovery and run forth for the game’s first try, followed by a successful point after.

Ten minutes later, the Bears launched another punt that would escape UMass’ clutches, similarly resulting in a try. The ensuing two-point attempt stayed true putting UMass in an early 14-0 hole after 16 minutes. Baker acknowledged the two plays as being tough breaks for his team.

“[They] could have gone either way. The ball bounced their way,” Baker said.

UMass managed to overcome the air current and get some points on the board before halftime. With the two frontlines clashing at around midfield and the Minutemen in control of the orb, senior Nick Petmezis found a crease in the defense and slashed up tackle and raced down the sideline relaying it to teammate for a diving score. The wind pushed a Josh Reid kick wide of the posts leaving the tally at 14-5 midway through the game.

The teams switched fields after the break and UMass did its best to capitalize on this as an opportunity to let the wind carry them to back into the game. The Minutemen controlled the ball for much of the second half and found themselves slowly, but surely drawing closer to the Bears on the scoreboard.

Attempting to withstand pressure from the Minutemen, the Bears misplayed a ruck, giving up a ‘not releasing the ball’ penalty deep in their own territory. Reid chipped a penalty kick through the uprights for three points. A second Coast Guard fault six minutes later allowed UMass to close the gap even further to three points after another Reid conversion. But with the score 14-11 and the final whistle looming, the Bears came back alive, spelling the end of the Minutemen scoring.

As time ran down in the final ten minutes of the game, the Bears imposed their will, gaining two more tries and dashing any chances for a UMass comeback. Aided by a missed tackle, Coast Guard touched the goal-line for a try, giving them an eight-point lead. They followed that up by bullying their way downfield during a series of rucks and mauls, scoring just left of the goal post as a consequence of another broken Minuteman tackle.

UMass did well to possess the ball, keeping it from the Bears’ offense, so the final minutes were discouraging as the team felt the fickle force of momentum.

“The first score was a surprise. The next one really took the wind out of our sails,” Baker said. “It was a good battle through the first 70 minutes. [The score] is not a total reflection. [We] only got 80 minutes, got to get it done in 80 minutes.”

Baker reiterated the adverse weather issues that both teams faced during the contest. Kickers went 1-for-3 battling up-wind and a perfect 4-for-4 booting with it. Neither squad could push its opposition out of their third of the field while they played into the wind and it was surprising to see each team score a try in that direction.

The Minutemen were without the services of two of their starting forwards including Brendan Daly who scored four tries against Amherst in their previous game. The two players are slated to be back in the lineup this weekend.

Despite the loss, UMass is still atop the Men’s Division II standings in the New England Rugby Football Union. The Minutemen will continue their preparation for a playoff run in the same way they have all season. The loss was a tough one to swallow for UMass and something they would hope not to repeat.

“We would rather those [to Coast Guard] than in the last game of the season. They don’t want to feel like that again,” Baker said.

The Minutemen take the pitch again on Saturday, entering their final match of the short regular season. They welcome the University of Rhode Island to town this homecoming weekend that comes off a win last Saturday, edging Amherst 21-14. The Rams look to avenge a 17-7 loss at the hands of the UMass on Sept. 26.

Dan Gigliotti can be reached at dgigliot@student.umass.edu.

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