The Chicago Lions didn’t need to win the Rock Hard 7s in Grand Rapids to ensure the top seed in the Midwest.
In fact, almost all they had to do was show up. But somehow, despite dealing with some injuries and despite having the Midwest almost in the bag, they managed to get through and win the tournament, going four-for-four in the Midwest Series.
It almost didn’t happen that way, as the Lions needed a last-gasp try to beat 1823, and almost lost to Western Michigan. But once they got to the knockout rounds, they were lights out, shutting out the Youngbloodz in the final to give their Minneapolis rivals four straight second-place finishes.
“We talked a lot going into this weekend about whether we wanted to use the tournament for a development opportunity – get some younger guys playing time at the higher bracket – or whether we wanted to use it as a good test before nationals,” said Chicago captain Eddie Bluemel. “We felt that if we were coming here to win, we had to come in with the right attitude.”
They had the attitude, but the execution wasn’t quite there early, said Bluemel. They won games, but it wasn’t pretty.
“We were sloppy at times, and we knew we had to dig deep to be better,” he said.
In the later rounds, they started to get better performances. Jordan Highberger continued to contribute on defense, and John Huguelet was also solid. Rocco Mauer had one of his better tournaments.
“Rocco was attacking with confidence,” said Bluemel. “That’s the best way for him. If he decides to beat someone, or decides to kick to the corner and chase, he’s going to score.”
Neither Youngbloodz nor Chicago needed to play the final. Each had clinched their respective seeds regardless of the result, but Bluemel said both teams felt that the tournament, run most ably by the Grand Rapids Gazelles club, deserved a final.
“After all that hard work you have to play the final,” he said.
Unfortunately for Chicago, longtime 7s star Mark Roberts went down with a hyper-extended knee. It was the second straight final to fell a key player on the team.
“We don’t want injuries,” said Bluemel. “But we’ve got depth. With the rules being that we can use all five subs, we’ve been able to give lots of players some time in important games. And we’re going to need those guys now.”