Davenport, in its second season, won the DI National Championship Saturday, 38-19, over UC Santa Barbara. Down 19-17 at the half, the Panthers outscored the Gauchos 19-0 in the second stanza.
Davenport wing Mason Baum opened scoring in the fifth minute after flyhalf J.P. Eloff shifted the ball from one side of the field to the other on a designed lineout play. The Panthers brought intensity early, but got only five points out of the surge.
UCSB upped their tempo to match Davenport's and finally got their first real possession inside DU's territory at around the 20-minute mark. Shortly after doing so, UCSB flyhalf Mark Neadbeater squirted through Davenport's defense and carried a pair of Panther tacklers into the try zone for a score. John Gallo's conversion put the Gauchos up 7-5.
The Panthers went on the offensive immediately. Their pressure triggered a UCSB penalty near the Gaucho five-meter line, and Davenport opted to toe through the ball and run. They were turned away, but again UCSB was penalized. This time Eloff quick tapped and found a crease for his first try. He converted his own score to take a 12-7 lead.
Six minutes later, after escaping danger in their own end, Eloff touched down his second try. Davenport second row Demecus Beach, a 6-3, 270-pound pillar, had already showcased his power running ability early on. On a set play off of a lineout, he used his size to suck in multiple defenders and fling the ball outside to Eloff, who would finish off the well-executed play and extend the Panthers' lead to 17-7.
"No one man can take me down, and I know if I can get a couple dudes to gang tackle me and still get the ball out, I’ve got J.P., Lance Cavanaugh and Mason Baum on the outside, and they’re fast enough to score, so I just tried to do my job so they could score," said Beach.
"I’m a big guy. I feel like if I could put fear in their eyes it’ll be easier to score, so if I can come out hard, aggressive and up the tempo, it’ll be easier for us to score."
UCSB, as they had done the day before against Bowling Green, would race in some points late in the first half to take the lead at intermission. And like the day before, it was Gallo who shined at this crucial time in the game.
His first of back-to-back tries was set up by a precise box kick from fullback Kyle Cronin. Gallo chased the kick vigorously, challenged Davenport's receiver in the air, forcing a mishandle, gathered the ball and dove into pay dirt. Gallo missed the difficult conversion.
Gallo's next score came not two minutes later, as UCSB swung the ball wide to the wing, who avoided a pair of Davenport defenders before centering the try. He nailed the conversion to claim the 19-17 lead UCSB would take into halftime.
UCSB had a great scoring opportunity at the end of the first half, when Eloff cleared a ball on-the-full after the Panthers had brought it behind the 22. UCSB won their lineout and pressured Davenport into a penalty. The Gauchos opted to kick for territory instead of posts, despite Gallo kicking well on the weekend and the shot at goal being a makeable one. The ensuing lineout was knocked by UCSB, ending the half.
At the beginning of the second half, Eloff cleared the ball straight into touch from in front of his 22, giving UCSB an excellent attacking platform. However, their lineout throw was long. Davenport openside flanker Ryan Hargraves scooped up the loose ball, gashed through the UCSB defense and offloaded to a streaking Baum, who outran Kronin for an 80-meter score.
Hargraves again made a long break off the ensuing restart, but lost the ball forward in contact. The Panthers stole the consequent scrum and UCSB reacted with a penalty, which Eloff converted for three points.
Davenport gave UCSB plenty of opportunities. Eloff kicked two more balls directly into touch, giving UCSB more great field position, and the Panthers committed a penalty directly in front of their own posts. But the Gauchos couldn't win a setpiece and opted to run the penalty instead of kick, walking away from all opportunities pointless.
"We couldn’t win our lineout ball. They were beating us at the scrums. Davenport really made life tough on us. They were quality, and we just couldn’t get it done," said Battle.
"If you can’t win your own ball, you’re going to have a difficult time playing rugby, and when you’re playing a great team in the championship and you can’t win your own ball, it’s almost impossible."
If both times UCSB had the chance to kick for goal resulted in three points a piece, the Gauchos would have been tied with Davenport until the 64th minute, and then who knows what would have happened? But those points went unscored, and when Eloff notched his third try of the game, it put the Panthers up by two scores and the tired Gauchos too far out of reach, down 32-19.
Davenport tacked on two more penalty kicks, one from reserve center Zebb Taylor and the other from Eloff, to round out the 38-19 win. The Grand Rapids, Mich. school's offense was good in the second half, but its defense was better, not yielding a single point after the break.
"Once halftime went, we just told the guys you have to calm down and work on your discipline and get your rucks right, get your set pieces right and just get your defensive lines right," said DU coach Kruger Van Biljon. "I think our defensive structures started working in the second half the way I think it was supposed to be working."
With 25 points, Eloff was named the finals MVP.
Davenport finished the regular season and the Midwest East playoffs in second place, entering the National Round of 16 as the only at-large bid after USA Rugby awarded the 16th seed to the runner up of the Midwest East.