Minutemen capture NERFU Division II championship
The Massachusetts club rugby team toppled No. 1 Middlebury on Sunday to capture the New England Rugby Football Union Division II championship.
The No. 25 Minutemen, division bottom-dwellers in recent memory, avenged a 110-0 loss from last season in beating the Panthers, 34-3.
Middlebury (7-1) had been a giant in NERFU, winning seven of the last eight New England Championship trophies, but felt disappointment in defeat.
“We just didn’t play well to our potential,” Middlebury coach Blake Hinckley said to www.RugbyMag.com. “We look forward to having another match with them soon.”
The Minutemen grabbed the lead 15 minutes into the game and would not let go. UMass moved the ball through Middlebury territory and inside the 22 meter line. The two teams collided in a scrum from five meters out in which UMass powered the pile over the goal line, revealing the ball for Scott Newman to dive on.
Five minutes later, the Panthers countered by penetrating the Minutemen attack. UMass yielded a ‘not releasing the ball’ penalty as it attempted to regain possession, and Middlebury knocked through a penalty kick that would turn out to be its only points of the game.
The Minutemen, persistent in their attack, continued to pressure the Panthers until the halftime whistle went off. In the final play of the first half, UMass strung together a long run downfield, swinging the ball quickly out to Seth Oliver and cutting through the Middlebury defense. Stopped just short of the end zone, the orb was moved to Brendan Daly who crashed in for a try and put the Minutemen up, 10-3.
Coming out of the half, UMass continued to play relentlessly. Six minutes into play, second row player Brian Jerome found the goal line for a try. Playing without their usual kicker, Josh Reid, who sat out with an ankle ailment, Edaun Pickholz followed the score up with a conversion. Up 17-3, UMass dominated the scoring column, cruising to three more tries.
While the Minutemen’s offensive production is characteristic of how they have been playing this season, averaging 34.5 points per game going into Sunday, the Panthers’ defensive effort slacked.
Middlebury had given up 10 points in its last five matches (all against Vermont on Saturday) and registered four shutouts. Over the seven games played this season, the Panthers have allowed 36 points (5.14 per game).
When asked how his team was able to create so many opportunities against a suffocating Middlebury defense, UMass coach Al Baker identified a pressing type of play from his ruggers.
“[We’re] going forward – putting them under a lot of pressure,” Baker said. “[There is] a good amount of support; no player is fending for himself.”
On the other side of the ball, the Minutemen have worked hard on defense. Prior to UMass stifling the Panthers, they allowed 12 points in three consecutive games.
The Minutemen earned their spot in Sunday’s final after besting Boston University, 22-12, on Saturday. Strong winds affected the match, as BU took an early halftime lead, 12-0. A lengthy try, however, by UMass 35 minutes into play sprung the Minutemen back into contention, toting in a triplet of tries for the win.
UMass has ascended far up in the club rankings and can see the summit in sight, yet it still has some climbing to do if it wishes to claim the title of National Champions.
“We want to be No. 1 in the country,” Baker said. “Same way as we have, take it one day at a time. Stay with fundamentals and keep fitness up.”
The Minutemen contend for the Northeast Regional title on Saturday and enjoys home-field advantage as Amherst welcomes in the eight-team field as hosts. The top-seeded Minutemen will take on eight-seeded Southern Connecticut at 1 p.m.
Despite the loss, Middlebury enters the tournament as the second seed.
Daniel Gigliotti can be reached at email@example.com.