Winning the Challenger Bracket at the USA 7s CRC isn’t easy.
To do it, you have to win all three matches on Day Two. Sure, the top eight teams are somewhere else, but sevens is tough and unpredictable, and many of the teams in college 7s aren’t used to such an intense, two-day meat grinder.
Every year the Challenger winners have brought something special to the tournament – Bowling Green, LSU. And this year, Florida did that, as well.
The Gators were edged by Delaware 17-10 on Day One, dropping them to 1-2 and out of the running for the Cup. So they had to refocus, and look ahead to Temple, North Carolina State and, ultimately, Maryland for the consolation title.
The quarterfinal match was the toughest, with Temple showing again how much they’ve improved. The Gators led 14-5 when just before halftime Temple’s Devin Sugg scored to make it, with the James O’Brien conversion, 14-12.
Temple then took the lead in the second half before tries from Josh Nicdao and Kahlil Harrison put them back on top.
Temple scored again to tie the game.
On to sudden death overtime, where both teams had a shot to win, but were both too tired to make it work. Finally, through an overtime of attrition, Raphael Freedman scored to win it for Florida 29-24.
After that, the Gators seemed energized, and cruised to the trophy – despite giving up an early try to Maryland in the final.
“We played Maryland in the very first game and they scored on us after the opening kickoff, so in our heads we were like, this happened last time, but we know we can beat this team,” said Florida’s Jon Greaves. “As long as we kept applying pressure and making our tackles, we would win, and it worked.”
Florida did a superb job taking what was given them. They scored one try working the ball between three players up the right-hand sideline. No long, wide passes, just quick offloads to a player in support. But it kept them going forward.
“That’s from how we play 15s,” said Head Coach Ken Simmons. “People say 7s and 15s are really different, but a lot of the skills translate. We like to offload that way in 15s and we kept doing it in this tournament.”
“One of our strengths is the offload,” added Greaves. “It’s something our coaches preached – when we get into contact close in on that ball and get the offloads. We had some trouble doing it this weekend but when we got our offloads going, we scored tries.”
“The way we looked at it, every game matters,” added Simmons. “We looked at who we lost to and how well we played. We said, we’re not done. I have only two players returning after the season and we wanted to go out with a win.”
Two years ago, five days after graduation and a few weeks before the CRC, Florida player Curtis Shepherd died in a fishing accident. That tragedy shocked the team, which still keeps the number 14 on their sleeves to remember him.
“This is the last of the group that knew him,” said Simmons. “He was special to the club … and I know he is proud of us now.”
Certainly Shepherd would not have wanted the Gators to fold after Saturday.
“The way we looked at it, every game matters,” said Simmons. “We looked at who we lost to and how well we played. We said, we’re not done. I have only two players returning after the season and we wanted to go out with a win.”
And that experience is one the players will take with them for a long time.
“This team is closer than any team I’ve ever been on in my life – closer than anything I’ve been a part of,” said Greaves. “We felt we should have been in a different place [the cup quarterfinals]. But we all banded together, and said to each other, let’s win this Challenger Cup and go out with a bang. Two years ago we were very disappointed. We didn’t win a game. We have six guys back from that team. We hit it four days a week plus Saturdays, and all that work paid off.”
University of Florida's CRC Record:
Tries: Nicdao, Baistrocchi 2
Tries: Nicdao, Breske
Tries: Goldring, Mullarkey 2
Tries: Hughes 2, Mueller, Clark
Convs: Fish 4
Florida 29 (OT)
Tries: Stubbs, Roux, Nicdao, Harrison, Freedman
Convs: Baistrocchi 2
Tries: Sugg 2, Calabrese, Mulville
Convs: O'Brien 2
Tries: Breske, Roux, Manning, Groetaers, Stubbs
Convs: Baistrocchi 3
NC State 5
Tries: Nicdao 2, Breske, Baistrocchi
Tries: Quigley, Rempe
Convs: Cima, Quigley