Minutemen take home third place in the New England Championships
Dark clouds loomed over the Massachusetts club rugby team on Saturday afternoon as it watched its lead evaporate in the final quarter of the match. But a silver lining was found on Sunday in a bid to the national championship tournament.
Fifth-seeded Vermont (9-2) waterlogged the top-seeded Minutemen (11-2), 15-10. The Catamounts scored 15 points in the final 15 minutes to amass a 10-point rally and move on to the New England Championship match on Sunday.
Despite the loss, UMass bounced back to win in its third-place match against Stony Brook, 21-0. Again, the Minutemen failed to score in the second half, but did not need the points as they stymied the Sea Wolves’s offense.
On Saturday, UMass had everything going its way in the first half, powering to two tries while staying in firm control of the game. The only regret in the first 65 minutes was that they didn’t score more points.
“We didn’t establish a large enough lead,” UMass coach Al Baker said. “There were a number of missed opportunities. We hit the posts twice on our conversions.”
Two missed conversions by a usually reliable Dan Morgan may have been costly. Both kicks missed by the slightest of margins, grazing the uprights and landing unsuccessfully.
The impact of the kicks was less tangible and more cognitive. Instead of a 14 point lead, forcing the Catamounts into gaining three scores to win, the 10-point deficit was more inviting to them.
“They weren’t confident until they got that score,” Baker said. “If we had a bigger lead, it would have made them more disillusioned.”
The Minutemen jumped out of the gate with two tries in the first half on a couple of physical, forward drives capped off by Mike Kenefick and Ryan Gillespie.
Vermont began moving the ball more successfully in the second half by giving their backs more touches. The soggy field conditions forced the ball to take some unexpected bounces that fooled UMass while the Catamounts used passing to keep the ball off of the sodden terrain.
The pitch was in poor condition on Saturday, resembling a marsh more than an actual field. With ruggers from both teams sporting brown uniforms as they were drenched with mud, Coach Baker thought the match had a classic feel to it.
“It was like watching an old-style football game,” Baker said.
The field conditions on Sunday were decidedly better, and so was the play of the Minutemen. Nine minutes into the match, Shawn Brennan stepped in front of a Stony Brook pass, intercepting the ball and bringing it 70 yards downfield for the game’s first try. Josh Reid, who handled the day’s kicking duties, punched in the conversion to take a 7-0 lead.
Some 12 minutes later, a kick-ahead by Edaun Pickholz put UMass in a position near the opposing try-zone. Kenefick picked up the kick and relayed it to Josh Reid who dove over the goal line for a try. A Reid conversion extended the lead to 14-0.
On the last play of the first half, after strong rucking and mauling, the Minutemen forced themselves into the end-zone one more time. Kenefick converted a try followed by a Reid two-pointer to conclude the day’s scoring.
The Catamounts pulled off another improbable rally on Sunday to beat Middlebury, 19-15, and capture the trophy. Along with Middlebury, the three teams earned spots in the national championship tournament next spring.
The national tournament will begin in April in Florida with 16 teams making the cut.
UMass will look forward to the Dec. 5 New England Rugby Football Union meetings in which it will be decided whether or not the former Division I school will move back up to those ranks next season.
Daniel Gigliotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.