Prior to yesterday’s training/walk-thru session at Arizona’s incredible rugby facility, Rincon Vista Rugby Pitch (the field looks like a grass-covered pool table), the boys were a bit wide-eyed at all of the happenings around them. They got to meet legendary Arizona rugby coach Dave Sitton (also the voice of Arizona football and basketball), who is a good friend of Western Team Manager Jeff Lombard and Head coach Paul Horne, and they got to tour the Lohse Soccer Stadium where the matches would be played, and they got to see the USA Rugby organization in action (USA Rugby did everything right). All new to the newbies from Bellingham…
But probably the biggest worry for the team was, what effect would the sun have on them? Coach Horne scheduled the training session for 11 am, same time as the kick-off of the game with Cal State – Chico, to get the boys acclimated to the conditions. Temps at game time were supposed to be in the low 90’s and that was worrisome.
At the end of the training session, though, the boys were starting to get settled in, get comfortable, and have some fun. But in the end, they still weren’t sold that they belonged in the same league as these other teams.
And then Saturday dawned…
The boys got to the field at about 9:45 am for the 11:00 am kick-off, again we were worried about being in the sun too long. We didn’t start the warm-up until 10:15 am or so and were finished by 10:50 am.
And then the fun really began, the two teams lined up side-by-side and trotted onto the field, players not in the game had to sit on the bench, and there was an AU trainer (who was the fastest ankle taper I’ve ever seen) on the field as well. Lots of water, all the little details that go into a National Championship event there with nothing for the teams to worry about except playing.
And play they did…but it was all Chico at first. Chico’s Head Coach, Beau McSwain, started nine seniors and their two big studs were the no. 8 Mike Morello and team captain and winger Tyler Poland. Chico was big and it was obvious they had spent a lot of time in the weight room…and they came out on fire.
Western, just like they did in the NCRC Championship game against Eastern, came out slow and sluggish. Chico took the ball right down the field and after a couple of rucks, handed off to one of their hard running centers who slanted in from about 25 yards out, broke a weak tackle attempt and touched the ball down just outside the posts. Their man converted the easy kick for a quick seven point lead not two minutes into the game.
And, showing the grit that has characterized their season, Western didn’t panic. The ‘non-panic mode’ has been a trademark of this team all year and even though they have only been behind at the start of a game twice this year (Eastern and Chico) they’ve always had that sense of cool…
The boys began to click, move the ball, attack with their ball control style, and it paid off for the Western boys as winger Jake Romano touched down, with 13 minutes gone in the half, for the first of what would be eight tries on the day. Quinton Willms couldn’t convert the difficult angle kick and the score stood 7-5 for Chico
Chico would answer at the twenty minute mark of the first half with another unconverted try to make it 12-5 Chico
And then Western began to put the ‘pedal-to-the-metal’. Matt Jensen, who played an outstanding game, put two tries across in a span of six minutes, neither converted, to give the Vikings the lead at 15-12 with eight minutes to go in the first half. Western added another three points with a Quinton Willms penalty kick seconds before the half for an 18-12 lead at the half.
At the end of his halftime talk, Coach Horne challenged the Vikings to ‘put Chico away’ with a ten minute burst to start the second half. The Vikings took Horne to heart and scored two tries in the next ten minutes by Spencer Stevenson and Gio Trujillo, who was an absolute beast all day.. Willms converted Stevenson’s try and the score was 30-12 10 minutes into the second half.
But Western wasn’t done…Louie Henson got a try, Jake Romano notched another, and Gio Trujillo scored his second of the match. Willms converted one of the three and the score was 47-12 with three minutes to go.
Horne began to substitute at half with the thought keeping players fresh for Sunday’s West Regional Championship match. And the subs that went in played well and didn’t allow Chico to even sniff the goal line until they scored with no time left in the match. Chico converted for a 47-19 score and the ref blew his whistle to end the game.
In the game that immediately followed the Western/Chico match, Cal State – Long Beach took on Arizona, with Arizona being the heavy favorite. Arizona got out to a 17-5 lead with about 20 minutes to go in the second half but Long Beach, down 17-15 with no time left, was able to push across a try with no time remaining, to win the game 22-17 and a slot in the Championship match on Sunday against Western.
The loss by Arizona was a huge upset and now no one has any ideas about how this is all going to playout…but it should be fun to find out. Stay tuned.