The Division II semifinal between Rocky Gorge and Santa Rosa had a little bit of everything. Ferocity on the defensive side, timely scoring, momentum shifts and a weather delay. In the end, it was Rocky Gorge that moved on with a gritty 25-17 decision.
The game started with absolutely nothing out of routine and both teams went back and forth with kicks to counter each other’s field position. Both teams had their share of the early penalties which made it even tougher for either to get on the scoreboard.
Finally though, Rocky Gorge struck first off an advantage from the opposing 40-meter line. Gorge’s backline worked the ball diligently out to winger Jay Benedetti who switched it back to fullback Andrew Kendall for the first score of the game and a 5-0 lead.
Santa Rosa took it personally and countered with back-to-back scores of their own. Using quick phases through their forward pack, Rosa got it into the hands of big prop Troy Harper off a counter play to make it a 7-5 contest with an Aaron Anthony kick
Soon after, Rosa wing Gary Parshegian used a great pass off a scrum from outside center Abel Grobelaar to pace down the sidelines to give his team a 14-5 with Anthony’s kick. Then disaster struck leaving the tournament on pause.
With momentum favoring Santa Rosa with two straight scores, the rugby gods decided to spread a forecast of lightning and thunder on the pitch. Without hesitation after the first strike, officials put the game on pause and frantically hurried the players back into the locker room.
For more than two hours, players were forced to stay inside and do whatever they could to stay ready, both physically and mentally.
“That break was a blessing in disguise because it really gave us a chance to regroup and make a few adjustments,” Rocky Gorge coach Chuck Moore said. “It seemed like the boys really bonded together in the locker room and came out from the break on fire.”
That was the story of the second half. With about 11 minutes remaining in the half, players were finally allowed back on the pitch. Gorge, down by a mere nine points, capitalized on possession and off a ruck scrumhalf Matthew Crowder fed flanker Michael Meehan who ran 22 meters untouched for a score and cut the deficit to 14-12.
Rocky Gorge managed a penalty kick just before the half to take a 15-14 lead. With enough momentum shifts to make someone have a heart attack, the game was wide open for the taking.
The second half saw Santa Rosa come out firing on all cylinders. Using phase play in the forwards, Rosa worked the ball down to inside the 22-meter line. On an off-sides penalty, Anthony capitalized with his second conversion and get his team back into the lead at 17-15.
However, the next phase saw Rocky Gorge take advantage of a hands-in-the-ruck penalty when a Santa Rosa forward refused to let the ball go when Rocky Gorge went into contact. Fullback Andrew Kendall capitalized with a solid kick to put his team back on top again 18-17.
This time though, the lead changes and momentum shifts stayed on the Rocky Gorge sideline. Working the ball down the middle of the field, Gorge called upon Kendall to seal the deal and take them to the final. Making two defenders miss off a ruck, the Gorge fullback put a stamp on a stellar performance and added to it with a conversion for a 25-17 final.
When the whistle sounded, Gorge celebrated as though they had won the title with coaches and players jumping and cheering aloud.
“We wanted to stay cool, calm and collected because we’ve been in this situation before in the Sweet 16,” Rocky Gorge captain Matt Burns said. “The weather was a bit of a setback, we just stayed focused and drank lots of water to stay hydrated so we could come out and do our best.”
With the early win, Rocky Gorge will face the winner of Wisconsin and the San Diego Old Aztecs for the DII final.