The Middlebury College Rugby Club are Division II National Champions! With a 27 – 11 win over University of Wisonsin-Madison the MCRC completed an undefeated season…a perfect season…an unforgettable season – the first in the team’s history. 15 regular season and championship wins.
Middlebury opened the scoring with a penalty from freshman Brian Sirkia ’12.5 but Wisconsin quickly tied.
Middlebury only made one change to their starting lineup from the team that beat Georgetown the previous day: freshman Rowan Kelner ’12 back on the blindside flank. Kelner quickly made his presence felt stealing a Wisconsin dropped lineout ball setting up a series of pick and drives by the Middlebury pack 15 meters out. Having sucked in the Wisconsin defense, visionary scrum half Max Levine ’09 whipped a double skip pass from the base of a ruck to right winger Spencer Paddock who drove it home for the first try of the game; Sirkia converts the easy kick. 10 – 3 Middlebury.
Sustained Middlebury pressure had Wisconsin hustling to clear their 22. Once again the pick & drives followed by moving the ball wide exposed the Mid-Atlantic team’s defense: with Levine again directing traffic the ball moved down the line to Trey Stewart who drew his defender and made a terrific one handed pass (his specialty) to left winger Ed Cahill ’09. Stewart must take the credit for this try as his running line forced Cahill’s opposite winger to make the wrong decision opening up the speedy winger to touch down.
Cahill’s participation in the first half was cut short after receiving a headbutt that split his forehead. Thankfully his father, Dr. Cahill, was on hand to sow in some stitches to allow him to play the second half after the blood sub was complete. Halftime score 15 – 3 to Middlebury.
In the second half both teams came out firing but edgy, as is to be expected with both sides 40 minutes away from a glorious victory or a bitter defeat. After a comical calamity of the ball bobbling back and forth between players from both teams (somehow without a knock-on) Wisconsin gained control of the ball and tried to punt clear from deep in their 22. However, the tenacious South African flanker, Ross Berriman ’12, charged the kick down and looked set to collect the loose ball and score when he was tripped from behind. The ref allowed play to continue (possibly waiting to see the advantage) and with a touch of poetic justice Middlebury were able to still collect the loose ball and score through Sirkia, who was unable, on this occasion, to convert his own try. 20 – 3 Middlebury…and Middlebury seemed to take a deep breath of complacency, relieved that the game was “in the bag”…big mistake with 30 mins to go against a side like Wisconsin.
Almost immediately Middlebury gifted Wisconsin with an opportunity to reply giving away a penalty in kicking range. 20 – 6 Wisconsin.
The strong Wisconsin pack caused Middlebury trouble throughout the game, and it was clear from their games during the playoffs that their forwards play was a major reason for their success. The MCRC forwards and particularly frontrowmen Israel Carr ’09, Chris Mutty ’09.5 and Chris Vandergrift ’11 must be credited for holding their own against this impressive unit. Wisconsin’s continued pressure was bound to finally crack a Middlebury defense that was still trying find a balance between the urgency of the situation and the calm required to execute on this level. Wisconsin’s retention of possession on a series of rucks resulted in a Wisconsin try. 20 – 11 Middlebury…and the game had been firmly removed from “the bag”.
The big scare for Middlebury came when they found themselves in the same position again: goaline defense with the Wisconsin forwards crashing. The ball was swung out to the Wisconsin #10 who looked clear to score from a few yards out but he knocked the ball on…when he was already past the line…that would have made it a two point game and given Wisconsin the confidence to take it right back to Middlebury again. This time fortune shined on us (early in the first half a Middlebury player also knocked the ball on in the try area).
Middlebury introduced several substitutions to bring some fresh legs and energy to their play. Lock Dan Chow ’09, Prop Robert “Bogo” Gosney ’09, Flanker Zach Bills ’11 and the young Greenwich utility back Geoff Kalan ’12.5 as a fullback (interestingly enough this was his first time playing for Middlebury in this position – he had not even practiced with the team in this position – but the surety of his boot was all that interested the Middlebury coaches as they looked to take the pressure off their defense). This new life brought in fresh instructions from the coaches and helped swing the control back into Middlebury’s favor. Cahill continued to look dangerous every time he touched the ball, slicing defenders with the precision of a haute couture tailor. In stark contrast the fresh sledgehammer Gosney barreled down his opponents requiring at least 3 men to finally bring him down. After long stretches on their own goaline earlier in the half, The MCRC once again found themselves in an try scoring position with less than 5 minutes to go: a brilliant kick by Ari Silverman ’09 was misfielded by Wisconsin’s last man in defense – having made contact with the ball before it crossed the try line the Wisconsin player gifted Middlebury a 5 meter scrum by touching the ball down in his own end zone (had he not touched the ball prior to it entering the try zone Wisconsin would have had a 22m drop out). Anyone who has seen the around the scrum & breakdown trickery of 9 man Levine over the past four years could have predicted what would come next but even if you could predict it you probably could not stop this slippery character: breaks blind with support outside, sells the dummy pass with his basketball long arms and dives home. Sirkia slots home the conversion (probably the hardest kick of the afternoon). 27 – 11 Middlebury.
Showing an inspirational defiance the Wisconsin team immediately bounced back and connected a series of open play passes from their own 22 into the Middlebury 40. Desperation defense (as was necessary) stopped this tirade and brought the game to a close.
The game was tightly contested and the difference in scoreline was a testament to our ability to capitalize on the few opportunities we created. Not the prettiest game we’ve played but in a national championship final against a tough Wisconsin team we took what we good get and it was enough.
This is Middlebury’s second title in 3 years. Uncanny that in 2007 The MCRC also won their game by 16 points…coincidence? Maybe…glorious? No question.
How Great is That!