Close isn’t quite close enough.
Both losing semifinalists at the Men’s Pacific Coast 7s Championships saw their summer 7s season end a little too early, one if heartbreaking fashion, and one in a more demoralizing way.
Both, however, took positives from a solid summer.
The Olympic Club had played second fiddle to SFGG all summer, but somehow were in position to win in their semi against their Bay Area rivals last Saturday. Colin Hawley, battered and bruised, had managed to score a try despite being obviously in pain. That try was all the more impressive because virtually the entire Olympic Club team was gassed – hands on knees – and many meters behind him. If Hawley hadn’t made the tryline, no one would have been there to help him. Rikus Pretorius kicked the difficult conversion, and despite looking the strong team, SFGG trailed 14-10 with time winding down.
Eventually Golden Gate scored the try they needed – the patient and experience Andrea Bola Asuega taking the corner to win it.
“The boys played real well and we’re proud of the effort they put in,” said Pretorius. “They just battled. Golden Gate are a good quality side, and we got close to them a couple of times this season and hoped to turn them over. We just didn’t quite do it.”
Every game, said Pretorius, the squad was getting closer.
“We are obviously disappointed, but we have been getting better,” said the former USA 7s player, noting the current USA player Hawley. “He carries a bigger target as a high-profile player, and he battled through some big shots and we were grateful to have him.”
Meanwhile, the Sacramento Lions 7s team finished their 2013 summer with a loss to Seattle Old Puget Sound Beach that was not at close – they were thumped 64-7.
It was, perhaps, one game too far for the club, but team manager Aaron Frederick said the team holds its head high.
“We have had a great summer and have been through a lot trying to come together as a team and win games,” said Frederick. “Despite the tough loss against Puget Sound, the guys played great throughout the day and we feel very fortunate to make it to the semifinal match in the Pacific Coast Championship with such great competition in Seattle. OPSB showed today that they are certainly one of the elite teams in the country and our guys learned a lot from this experience and it can only benefit us in the future as we move forward.”
Sacramento played tough throughout the day and finished 2nd in their pool after going 2-1 in pool play. In pool play, the Lions defeated Eastside 31-21 and downed Valley 38-5. The Lions lost to SFGG in pool play 43-12.
“We were hoping for a better performance against SFGG and we were with them during the first half,” said Frederick. “But it was the Pac Coast Championship and SFGG needed to play their best rugby and they did so against us to close out the game.”
The Lions were competitive with SFGG in the first half with tries scored by Joel Scott and Andre Whaley. At the half, the Lions found themselves down by one try with SFGG leading 19-12. Golden Gate, however, showed why they are one of the top teams in the country and ran away in the second half using their depth and endurance to score four unanswered tries to seal the win against Sacramento, 43-12.
After a long day of hard-hitting 7s rugby, Sacramento simply could not match the pace and experience of the talented OPSB squad, which scored at will throughout the match.
“Puget Sound has achieved the model for what all American clubs are striving for,” added Frederick. “They have established an elite, high-performance atmosphere which not only attracts top talent but also attracts great sponsorships and resources. They have accomplished this through commitment and organization at the administrative level, but also through the same type of dedication from the players as well. As you can see, their hard work has paid off and they continue to experience great success.”
The Sacramento Lions did manage some offense against OPSB throughout the match. Lion’s forward Joel Scott grubber kicked a loose ball and raced Ben Gollings downfield into the try zone before Gollings was forced to kick the ball out of the back. In the second half, the Lions had their first big break when 19 year old Hiko Fotukava took a pass and sprinted 40 meters before being brought down by international player Mike Palefau. As the OPSB defense scrambled, the ball went wide to Sione Latu who found the overlap and dashed through under the post for the first try against OPSB on the day. OPSB had won their three previous matches by a total of 143-0, and while the Lions lost by one of the widest margins, they were also the first team on the day to find the try zone against OPSB.
The Lions team captain Nemani Volavola took a philosophical approach to the loss. “I’ve played a lot of rugby and this OPSB team was very good. But that’s rugby. You can’t get down on yourself or your teammates and wonder what if we did this or that. You can only learn from each game whether it’s a win or a loss. As the veterans on the team like me move on, the younger guys will remember this day and it will only make them better in the future. I was proud to play with the Lions today and know the Lions will only get better as these younger players take over.”
The Lions went to Seattle with a number of young players who got their first taste of a championship style tournament against elite competition at the men’s club level.
Hiko Fotukava just finished his freshman year at Life University, and should continue to turn heads for his university side which will surely reap the benefits of his powerful running and hard-hitting defense. Also playing for the Lions was High School All-American flyhalf from the Sacramento Islanders, Pate Takiveikata. Takiveikata will be joining his high school teammate Fotukava at Life this year and should continue to shine as part of an elite university side.
The Lions also saw great productivity from 19-year-old Marshall Godfrey, who will be transferring from American International College to Lindenwood University in the fall and will hope to use his experience at the men’s club level to benefit a varsity university program that is on the rise. In addition, the Lions had three young football crossover athletes with Andre Whaley, Denzel Manning, and Byron Gibson all helping to raise the level of athleticism and pace for the Lions club.
Whaley, in particular, played some incredible rugby for the Lions in 15s and 7s this last year, which has led to numerous recruiters at the college and club levels wanting to offer Whaley more rugby opportunities. Whaley is a strong, powerful runner and a very capable finisher with a nose for the try zone. As a former line-backer, Whaley is loves to hit and he has very quickly learned the intricacies of the breakdown and creates plenty of turnover ball.
“We have been blessed with some talented young athletes playing 7s this summer,” stated Head Coach Iferemie Tawake. “These young athletes have kept us competitive as the rugby in the US becomes faster and faster with each season. We are proud of what we have accomplished this year in 7s and will look forward to being a competitive team whenever we play. We know these players will continue to excel at their universities and we will always welcome them as Lions when they return home.“
Frederick is optimistic about the Lions future from an administrative level as well, “We have a good group of athletes and it is good to see the younger guys stepping up to the plate as many of our star players from years past are getting closer to hanging up the boots. The Lions used to be a player run club, but in the last couple years we have seen a number of different people help grow this club and I am confident the Lions will continue to develop into a highly regarded community organization and high-performance team. Each year brings new challenges but also new opportunities. As rugby in America continues to expand, the Sacramento Lions are just happy to play a role and be a part of it all. With Coach Tawake guiding us, I think the Lions finest moments are still ahead of us.”