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February 21, 2017

UMass advances to Northeast Regional Championship semifinals

With a Northeast Regional Championship title in sight and a national championship birth in the wings, the top-seeded Massachusetts club rugby team poised itself for a second half surge that propelled it to a 27-0 quarterfinal win over eight-seeded Southern Connecticut on Saturday.

Deadlocked without a score after 40 minutes, the Minutemen (9-1) burst out to a decisive lead in the second half. They chipped in a penalty kick and out-ran their opponents to two quick tries, taking a 17-0 lead. UMass coach Al Baker attributed the offensive explosion to his team’s fitness.

“After a point, it was hard for them to keep up with our speed and intensity,” Baker said.

The Minutemen played into a slight wind in the first half, which contributed to Southern Connecticut’s (7-2) attempts to hold off the UMass attack. Every effort the Minutemen made to push forward, the Owls countered by applying resistance and clearing the ball off of their collective foot. Baker advised his team to settle down at the break.

“We were very excited and anxious,” he said. “We settled down, got our legs under us and were much calmer.”

A penalty on Southern Connecticut for ‘coming in from the side’ on a ruck three minutes into the half gave the Minutemen a penalty kick on the right sideline at the 30 meter line. Dan Morgan’s kick stayed true, putting UMass on the board, 3-0.

Seven minutes later, the Minutemen moved swiftly downfield thanks to a kick-to-catch by Edaun Pickholz and a series of strong rucks. They gained the benefit of a line-out at the Owl’s five meter line. UMass looked incessantly for a crease to sneak into the try-zone until forward Brendan Daly found his way in for five points. Morgan legged the ball through the posts for a conversion to make the score 10-0.

Impressive runs by Shawn Brennan and Clark Hoopes six minutes later pushed the Minutemen to a three-score advantage. A scrum-out in UMass territory yielded possession to Brennan when he scooted 20 meters across midfield. From there, fullback Clark Hoopes carried the ball the final 40 meters for the try. Josh Reid, who sat out last weekend with an ankle injury, completed the conversion to take a 17-0 advantage.

The second half saw UMass gain the lion’s share of possession, hovering mostly around its opponent’s 22 meter line.

“It gave us more opportunities to attack and put pressure on them,” Baker said.

Forward movement for the UMass offense went stale after its second try as Southern Connecticut jockeyed for position. By hoarding the ball, the Minutemen kept the Owl’s defense on their heels and found more opportunities late in the half.

At the 30 minute mark, Brian Donnelly made another run for goal, taking the ball from his forwards, running over a couple of players, and crashing in for the third UMass try of the game. Reid’s kick sailed right of the posts, and the home team took a 22-0 lead.

On the final play of the game, Shaun Brennan cut and spun his way through Connecticut defenders for a try of his own and the Minutemen’s final score.

The offensive futility that the Owls displayed was uncharacteristic of their season, having scored at least 20 points per game in seven contests since Sept. 20. UMass is now holding its opponents to under seven points per game during the postseason (6.75).

The Minutemen are undefeated on their field behind McGuirk Stadium (5-0). They have the benefit of their home crowd again this weekend as they host the semifinals and finals of the Northeast Regional Championships.

UMass faces Vermont on Saturday for a birth in the finals and the right to compete for a national championship.

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

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