The Final Four

FF Team CroppedAfter the unexpected win in the West Regional and the automatic bid to the Final Four that win carried with it, there was some doubt that your Western Washington University Men’s Rugby Club would even be able to make it back to Bowling Green State University in Ohio for the event.

USA Rugby had made a mess of siting the West Regional in Austin, Texas, had been talked out of the original site in Austin, and talked into potential sites in Chico, CA and San Francisco (both of which were rejected for one reason or another) and, ultimately, had agreed to let the University of Arizona host the event. Oh, and by the way, Arizona would also be the West Region ‘wildcard’ entry, the fourth team that would fill out the bracket.

Actually Arizona was a great selection to host the event. Not only did they have one of the great rugby coaches in the country in Dave Sitton (also the voice of Arizona football and basketball broadcasts), but they had absolutely incredible facilities, amazing facilities.

Nonetheless, the cost of getting to Tucson was not that much less for Western that it would have been to get to Austin. It came in around $18,000 and change to leave on Thursday and get back to Bellingham early Monday morning.

WWU Campus Rec was able to contribute some to the travel expense, the players
kicked in $250 each, and the balance was picked up by the WWU Men’s Rugby Alumni.

So the coaches and players got together Monday evening after the West Regional and had to decide what to do.

The Tucson trip had pretty much tapped out the Alumni Association coffers so the alumni wouldn’t be able to contribute much, if anything to the trip. WWU’s Campus Rec department would be able to contribute to some of the travel expenses this time because it was a National Championship event, but Director Marie Sather, and her crew of Adam Leonard and Clark Cripps, were limited by their own budget woes.

The boys were between a rock and a hard place. Initial inquiries about air fare indicated that airline tickets would be in the $600 range so they were looking at a budget number of at least $22,000. They knew that if they were going to attend this event they would have to contribute at least $500 each. A big chunk of dough for a college student.

In the face of all of this, WWU Men’s Rugby Club leadership were able to convince all of the team members that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of the Club members, especially the seniors. The vote was taken, the commitment made to scramble and find the funds necessary to go to Bowling Green.

And the rest is history…with a greater commitment from the University, resourcefulness on the part of the club leadership in chasing down potentially available funds, commitments from a couple of parents, and the loan of a credit card by one of the alumni, the team was on it’s way.

The irony in all of this was that by delaying booking from Monday evening to Wednesday afternoon added about $100 to the price of each airline ticket. We’re not sure if there is an easy solution to trying to book flights in the 7 – 10 day window but someone needs to do something…book earlier then cancel if you don’t make it?

Regardless, we were off again…Thursday, May 9th, Seattle (5:30 am flight) to Phoenix to Detroit. Not much fun. But we got there to Detroit, rented the vans, and were off to Bowling Green, Ohio, about 70 miles south down I-75. Not much traffic, and undulating farmlands as far as the eye could see since there are no mountains, nary even a hill.  Tough to figure out what direction you’re headed other than taking comfort in knowing that I-75 runs North/South, except when it doesn’t.

Take exit 181 off I-75 and you’re there, Bowling Green, Ohio. Laid out before you on your right as you exit I-75 is the SE corner of Bowling Green State University, its imposing football stadium and the wide expanse of open, flat acreage suitable for seemingly hundreds of playing fields. The stuff Marie Sather and Linda Goodrich dream off…lots of flat land.

The Days Inn of Bowling Green is right there at that exit and we get checked in with nothing planned for the boys except a Captain’s run to shake out the collected travel juices.

After a short meeting called by Coach Paul Horne to go over the weekend’s schedule, Captain Matt Jensen led the troops in a short stretching session followed by a 30 minute run to shake out the aforementioned juices.

Keep in mind that most of the players had left Bellingham at 2:00 am to make the 5:30am flight…that would be 11:00 pm Bowling Green time. Essentially the boys had been up 24 hours by the time they finished their Captain’s run. They were just starting to get their game face on…

Friday morning dawned overcast and gray, but it was relatively warm and the team was eager to get to work. The day’s training session was scheduled for mid-afternoon so after breakfast the team had some time to sight-see around the campus or just relax.  The unfortunate thing is that Bowling Green had finished up their spring semester the previous Friday so the campus was pretty much deserted.

A lot of the guys chose to, believe it or not, study and/or work on school projects.

Nat Team Training Wrapup cropEventually the training session rolled around and the feeling amongst the boys was one of disbelief, they were still finding it hard to believe they were here as the winner of the West Regional bracket. The team hadn’t ever experienced this level of success, ever, in the 58 years that the rugby program has existed at Western.

That feeling of disbelief began to fade as they began their warm-ups in the shadow of the Bowling Green U football stadium and by the end of the spirited, hour long session they were back in the belief mode.

And the coaches kept hammering home the idea that they systems they had in place and the way the players used them would get the team where they wanted to be.

Part of the issue with the team were the other teams in the Final Four: Dartmouth, Central Florida, and Lindenwood University. Of the three other teams, Dartmouth had the greatest reputation coming in.

Dartmouth (enrollment 4,100) is a “Varsity Cup” team, running with the ‘big dogs’ like Cal, BYU, and the other top collegiate programs in the country. But a funny thing happened on the way to the “Varsity Cup”, Dartmouth got beaten so they dropped into the D1-AA National pool. Curious how a top tier can team drop “down in class” and skip the D1-A pool.  Another example of how messed up the US collegiate rugby scene is right now. Dartmouth had beaten Pittsburg 43-34 and St. Bonaventure 30-22 to get here.

Central Florida (enrollment 58,500) was a lot like Western in that both teams were leading candidates for the “Rodney Dangerfield – I don’t get no respect” trophy. While no one had given Central Florida much of a chance at the beginning of the season, the teams in the SEC and the ACC were well aware of Central Florida’s march to the Final Four. They had beaten a solid Tennessee team 30-17 and a tough Clemson squad 24-20 to earn their spot.

Lindenwood (enrollment 17,000), Western’s first round opponent, was the 2012 D-ll National champion and moved up to Dl-AA for the 2012-13 season. Lindenwood is one of those schools that features a lot of foreigners on their roster, 4 Kiwis, 3 South Africans, 2 Englishmen, 2 Irish, 2 Aussies, a player each from Chile, France, and the Bahamas. Little wonder they won the D-ll championship in their first year.  That’s right folks; Lindenwood is in their second year of rugby existence.

Give the Lindenwood credit, they have made rugby a focus of their athletic program.  Check out this recruiting blurb that appears on the USA Rugby website under Scholarships: “Lindenwood…offers fully-funded rugby programs for both men and women. Full University support includes generous scholarship assistance, all travel, equipment, uniforms, strength and conditioning coaches, weight room, video room, athletic trainers at all practices and matches…”.

And then there was little ‘ol Western Washington University…winners of the NCRC, and the West Regional. Where was Rodney Dangerfield when you needed him?

Game day, cold, wet, drizzly, just like home, no?  Nah, not even close, these are the National Championships…the team is understandably anxious, yes!  Of course they were, but the coaches reminded them that they had earned their way here, that they hadn’t been given any gifts. After all, which programs didn’t make it to the Final Four? Clemson, North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Florida State, Georgia, Navy, and Wake Forest to name a few who tried and bombed.

The Lindenwood vs WWU Match was scheduled for 3:00 pm, the last match of the day.  So the boys got geared up in their track suits and headed over to the Bowling Green Soccer Stadium a little early to catch some of the Dartmouth vs Central Florida match.

And what a match that was! Everyone expected Dartmouth to have little trouble putting away Central Florida but the Knights did not go quietly into the night…on the contrary, their bruising style and disdain for the kicking game had Dartmouth frustrated all day.

Deep in their own end countless times, the Knights disregarded all strategic considerations and ran the ball every time. Combine that style of play with a high level of fitness and BIG, strong athletes and you have a formula for success. The seesaw game saw Central Florida come out on top 45-38 in a game that wasn’t decided until the last few minutes.

The Vikings left that match a half-time and went to their locker room and got geared up for their warm-up. Matt Jensen led the boys onto the practice field for their warm-ups a short time later. And, as they got into their warm-up, you could see the tension melt away and the game faces start to appear.

That is until they got back in the locker room and were putting on their match jerseys. I have been in a lot of locker rooms over the years and I have never felt anything like the energy that was oozing out of the pores of those players. The coaches left the room and left the boys to their own thoughts for several minutes and that just increased the tension.

The coaches came back in, both Coach Horne and Coach Roberts had a few comments and reminders, and then it was time to go. Time for the long walk to the field entrance where they would lineup next to their Lindenwood opposite number and the two teams would then run onto the field together.

The game began with Lindenwood kicking off.  Initially the Vikings were solid, moving the ball down the field in the first minute or so into Lindenwood territory.  And it looked like the recent playoff scenario where Western gives up a cheap early try to the opposition wasn’t going to happen. Then a missed tackle, a break, and Lindenwood got the ball to Morgan Findlay, their superlative All-American, 27 year old, New Zealander who weaved his way through traffic from about 20 yards out to touch down in the corner for the first try of the game. Findlay missed the conversion and the Lions were up 5-0, two minutes in.
Lindenwood 4
It didn’t take Western long to answer.  Quinton Willms restarted play with a dropkick that was so high it almost drew rain. Running down field under the kick was Jon Kaimmer who tapped the ball back to Louie Henson, who was tackled, presented the ball to scrumhalf Matt Jensen, who then passed the ball to Kaimmer again.  Kaimmer had looped around the loose ruck and gotten in position to take the pass from Jensen.  Kaimmer put on a quick burst, was through the Lindenwood defense in a heartbeat with nothing and nobody in front of him but the goal line about twenty yards away. Kaimmer could have walked in and the stunned Lindenwood team were left talking to each other.  Willms made the conversion, and the pro-Lindenwood crowd sat in befuddled silenced as the Vikings went ahead 7-5.

The match then settled into a back and forth affair with both teams making moves into the other’s territory but with Lindenwood spending lots of time in the Viking end. Again, Western’s defensive scheme was superlative, frustrating Lindenwood time and time again.

About twenty-six minutes in, Lindenwood took a quick tap off a penalty and their big second row, Colin Bartolomeo got the ball and touched down for a try left of the posts which Findlay converted for a 12-7 lead.

It was becoming quickly apparent that Findlay, the six year veteran of the Royal New Zealand Navy, was the most dynamic player on the field. Some have called him the best college player in America right now.  He scared you every time he touched the ball.

But Western had Quinton Willms, Matt Jensen, and Jon Kaimmer. Kaimmer was playing the game of his life and was everywhere on the field. Willms was his usual shifty, solid self, strong in defense, and placing strategic kicks to keep the Vikings out of trouble. And Matt Jensen was playing his usual stellar game at scrumhalf and if there is a better scrumhalf in Dl-AA rugby then we’d like to see him.

And after the last Lindenwood score, Western began to assert themselves and take the match to Lindenwood. Willms made a nice break and was able to run in a try at about the nineteen minute mark, but missed the conversion, to leave the score tied at 12-12.

Western threatened several times and were unlucky not to score but Lindenwood’s talented back line, read that Morgan Findlay, would make a break and start a rush that would ultimately get the Lions out of trouble for a little bit.

But, again, back came Western.  At about the twelve minute mark, Jensen picked the ball, made one of his patented breaks leaving his opposite clutching air, and touched down near the corner for a 17-12 lead after Willms missed the conversion.

And as the first half wound down it looked like that would be the half-time score.  But with less that a minute showing on the stadium scoreboard clock, Lindenwood began a rush from deep in their own end that would be capped by another brilliant run from Findlay who touched down well after time expired, converted, and sent the teams to halftime with a 19-17 Lindenwood lead.

And the line from the rugby.mag article, by Pat Clifton, said it best, “The Lions, who are used to blowing out divisional opponents, were lucky to be up at intermission, and they knew it.”

During the halftime break, Coach Paul Horne outlined a strategy to try and keep the ball away from Findley.  In addition, they wanted to get the ball to Gio Trujillo with more space to work in.  Lindenwood had seen the game tapes and knew what a force Trujillo was with some room.  In the first half Lindenwood barely gave Gio room to breath, closing quickly every time he touched the ball with two guys to take away any escape routes.

Horne also had to deal with a couple of injuries.  He replaced no. 8, Rob Boenish who had tweaked his knee (turned out to be an ACL), with big Corey Kleppe.  And shortly after half, Horne replaced winger Pat Phelps, who had tweaked a nerve in his neck, with Damon Rickard.  They were going to do the Phelps for Rickard swap at half but Phelps thought he could go with the pinched nerve in his neck.

As expected Lindenwood came out with their “hair on fire” in the second half and put immediate pressure on Western.  The pressure paid off when, about four minutes into the half, that man Morgan Findlay touched down for his “hat trick”, his third try of the day.  Findlay converted and Lindenwood was up 26-17.

Lindenwood was also kicking more to Western’s backs and forcing Western into some sticky situations.  Their New Zealand fly-half, Mickey Bateman began to put pressure on Western to retreat and cover kicks.

Horne countered by sending the more experienced Nick Solimano back from his fly-half position to fullback and substituted Spencer Stevenson in at 2nd row.  Out came fullback Max Wright.  Nate Muir moved from 2nd row to inside center and Willms moved to flyhalf.  And things were looking a bit better for Western.

These moves stabilized things for a while and the match, again, settled into a slugfest with first one team then the other making advances.  Lindenwood was able to get the ball to their cheapshot artist winger, Kolton Nelson, who was able to score a try that Findlay was unable to convert, making the score 31-17.

Western wasn’t fazed though and kept to their plan, working the ball down into the Lindenwood end.  Western was awarded a scrum just outside the Lindenwood 22.  With the ball won, Matt Jensen picked the ball and again worked his magic.  Jensen was headed to the try line, looked like he was going to be tackled, kicked the ball ahead and it ricocheted off the right goal post and right back into Jensen’s hands, who then touched it down for a try.

But not according to the referee, who said that Jensen had knocked the ball forward somewhere in that sequence of events.  Try disallowed and a five yard scrum was ordered with a Lindenwood put-in.

We have reviewed the game tapes several times, the tapes are clear, we have yet to see what the referee saw that prompted him to make that call.  As Pat Clifton wrote in his rugby.mag article about the match, “Jensen seemed to have scored his second try,… but the referee called a phantom knock-on…”.

While the phantom knock-on was a blow to Western’s efforts, the bigger problem was the injury bug that hit again with about fifteen minutes left in the match. Flanker Matt Tiscornia, the key jumper in Western’s lineout package, tweaked his ankle (turned out later to be a broken bone) and had to leave the game.

Horne was running out of options as far as subs were concerned having mostly front row left on the bench.  Not a problem, he inserted Wu-Bene Hong into the 2nd row and moved 2nd row Louie Henson to flanker.

And again, Western kept driving, were not deterred, and got the ball back at about mid-field with a penalty, Jensen took a quick tap and fed it to his forwards, who blew through the Lindenwood defense, with big prop Ned Kelly rumbling the final 30 yards or so to touch down the try.  Willms missed the conversion but the Vikings had life with about eight minutes to go, down 31-22, but were able to move the ball against the Lindenwood defense.

Western began taking chances, trying to make something happen, and it came back to bite them when Lindenwood’s Kolton Nelson capitalized on one of the mistakes and ran in his second try of the game right between the posts.  Findlay’s conversion made the score 38-22 with less than two minutes left.

Horne made one more substitution, steady senior Sam Hobbs in on the wing for Damon Rickard.

And that is how the match ended…

In retrospect it was a great match.  Before the match the oddsmakers wondering how Western would even stay in the game with Lindenwood.  The buzz after the match wasn’t so much about the mighty Lindenwood University side, it was all about Western Washington University and their style of play, their class on the field and off.

The heart and soul of the Western team had shown through.  You combine great student athletes with great coaching, with everyone believing in each other and working hard towards a common goal, and you’ll get great results.

Hats off to the WWU Men’s Rugby Club, they accomplished way more than anyone had even hoped for,  Their goal was to win the NCRC and make it to the West Regional, the Sweet Sixteen.  Did it and did it big time…playing in the National Championship series.  Well done!

Thanks to all of the alumni, friends, and parents who have supported the Men’s Rugby Club this year.  We couldn’t have accomplished any of this without your generous financial support and your constant encouragement.  We hope you enjoyed the ride…

And a special thanks to Western Washington University and the Campus Rec crew, Marie Sather, Adam Leonard, and Clark Cripps.  Thanks for all your patience and encouragement in helping us exceed our goals.  We hope we have made you and the University proud.