|Alex Ross being tackled: a rare scene. Dobson Images|
|Schuylkill passing. Dobson Images|
|Ed Pitts evading a tackler. Dobson Images|
|Shalom Suniula was awarded MVP by Al Caravelli|
Belmont Shore, which won the semifinals and quarterfinals by a score each, got back to dominating in the cup final, beating Schuylkill River 37-14 to claim their second national 7s title in three years.
Their first score was the result of a quick-tap penalty just shy of Schuylkill’s try line. Taylor Howden touched it down, and Shalom Suniula converted.
Belmont didn’t wait long to score again, stealing the ensuing kickoff and swinging the ball wide to Justin Boyd, who raced to pay dirt.
Perhaps more consequential than the try itself was Schuylkill’s loss of Greg Ambrogi, who subbed out after the score. Ambrogi was Schuylkill River’s most potent weapon, but he suffered a shoulder injury while making a heroic tackle in the narrow semifinal win over Utah. He attempted to go in the final, but lasted less than two minutes.
“We’re a team of 12, but to lose that kind of speed and cutting and finishing ability, it’s tough to replace,” Schuylkill coach Chris Ryan said.
“In my opinion he’s the hardest player to bring down in the country, and what does that tell you?” pondered teammate Will Knipscher. “Having him out on the field, you get used to it, and when he’s not there…”
Howden stole the restart and appeared to score Belmont’s third try in less than as many minutes, but he was forced slightly into touch before dotting it down, giving Schuylkill River, for the first time all game, a meaningful possession.
Once they breached the midway point, Belmont was pinged for a penalty, and Dan Wright chipped a kick past the aggressive Belmont defense and tracked it down for Schuylkill’s first score, putting them down five, once converted, at 12-7.
Howden was yellow-carded shortly after the restart for a dump tackle, but Schuylkill River failed to capitalize, and Belmont poured in two more tries before the half and 25-consecutive points altogether, putting the game well out of reach.
Their offense was impressive, but what stuck out in the mind of Schuylkill River was Belmont's defense.
“They were incredibly physical, really aggressive on defense, and I’d like to credit them for scouting us out there,” said Knipchser. “We like to move the ball wide, and they came up real hard and wouldn’t let us do it. They put us on our heels the whole game.”
The win was a team effort for Belmont, as five players scored tries.
“It was a huge team win. I think the good thing about Belmont is that everybody is pretty close-knit off the field. We all kind of do things together off the field, and the spirits just get kept high. There’s no kind of negative talk in the club. If someone drops a ball or makes a forward pass or gets a yellow card in the final,“ said Howden, who got a yellow card in the final, “people pick you up, and they’re always positive, so it’s always good.”
Belmont Shore was a selfless club all tournament. Although Alex Ross scored a bevy of tries, almost the entire 12-man roster scored on the weekend, and all three subs were used in seemingly every match. How does a team like Belmont, which features few guys who play 15s together or spend more than a couple weeks a summer with each other, foster that kind of play?
“I think it's hard to put a name on it. We believe in a spirit of openness at the club. I tell the guys exactly where they stand at all times. We encourage open communication, and the guys buy into the system,” said Belmont coach James Walker.
“In a game like the Youngbloodz (the semifinal which Belmont narrowly won on the last play), where one or two guys feel like they have to make a statement, that’s when the system breaks down. The guys know, they can see it, it’s patently obvious, when you play in a system you walk over people, when you break that system, you don’t.
Walker accredits a lot of the team humility and togetherness to the work of Matt Hawkins, who spent this summer doing more coaching for Belmont than playing. So does Howden.
“You’ve got to respect your teammates, and that’s something we kind of instill in the boys. Hawkins has done quite a good job of that, just making sure you respect your teammates and they have respect for you as well,” he said.
“We’re a team at the end of the day. We’re not just a star-studded cast. We’re a team.”
The semifinal against the Youngbloodz was one of the tournament's most compelling. Another was Belmont's 14-7 win over the Chicago Lions, which took a late Ross try to win. Walker says the rivalry Belmont has with Chicago, and what that quarterfinal took out of the team, had a lot to do with the score of the Youngbloodz game.
"We just really geared ourselves up for Chicago. We have so much respect for those guys, and we knew it was going to be a nail biter, so there was a lot of emotional investment in that game, and it’s very difficult not to let down the next game after that. Unfortunately, that’s what almost happened, but luckily there was enough experience and calms heads out there to get us through."
The semifinal round was a big one for the runners-up as well.
"We put three tries on Utah, and we were winning by two tries and one conversion, and I thought, 'Well, you know we can win this one,' because we saw Utah as a great team, and being able to handle them and get past them, that’s the boost that I needed," said Knipscher. "In my mind, that’s when I felt really confident we had a chance to win this whole tournament."
Schuylkill River fell one game short of Knipscher's vision, but while disappointed in the outcome of the final, the Mid-Atlantic champs are flying back to Pennsylvania happy.
“It’s bittersweet. We’d like to be one place higher, but to finish second when nobody’s expecting you to finish higher than 10th isn’t bad,” Ryan said.
“It feels really good to be able to represent MARFU like that,“ added Knipshcer. “It’s a good feeling.”