(Edited from reports by Steve Cohen and Bernie Decker)
St. John’s University of Minnesota defeated Duke University 31-16 Sunday in the final of the National Small College Rugby Organization championships.
Led by four tries from front-rower Brett Gardner over the two-match weekend, St. John’s won a thriller 37-35 over Denver University on Saturday, while Duke pipped New England College 25-24 in the semi.
New England College (Henniker, NH), the NSCRO Northeast Region Champ, has been rebuilt from the ground up in just over two years by Head Coach Jeremy Treece and his staff. NEC joined the New England RFU in 1984 but fell on hard times in 2006 and disbanded. This year they were undefeated in league play, won three New England RFU playoff matches before beating Quinnipiac and 2012 NSCRO champs Salve Regina to win their region.
Duke University (Durham, NC), won the NSCRO Mid-Atlantic South Region. In March’s NSCRO Regional competitions, under the guidance of Coach Mike Morgan, Duke played four nearly flawless matches to earn their trip to Glendale. It took a come-from-behind effort against Gettysburg College in the Regional final to earn their trip to Glendale.
St. John’s University (Collegeville, Minn.), won the Central Region. Under Head Coach Dan Franklin they used a three-match tour of Ireland to prepare for their title run. Last fall, SJU was the convincing winner in the Central, crushing Wisconsin-Parkside 50-0.
The University of Denver (Denver, Colo.), won the West. Just five years ago the club was in a state of disrepair. Allan Wilson took over as head coach and began to guide his players along the right path. This past year DU finished 2nd to Colorado School of Mines in the Eastern Rockies RFU NSCRO league. Then they beat Lonestar Conference champs Texas-Dallas, and followed that up with an upset of Mines to win the West playoffs. They then went on to win the PacWest Region Championship, defeating two NSCRO runners up, California Maritime Academy and Occidental College, along the way.
Duke and New England changed leads frequently.
Down 15-12, New England pressured for long periods and finally got a try from flanker Carlos Arteaga for a 17-15 lead.
Nic Emanouil then poached a ball from the ruck and raced 70 meters to extend NEC’s lead to 24-15 with just over 20 minutes to go.
But Duke finished the stronger. Wing Uki Deane collected a kick ahead and scored to make it 24-22. And then in the 67th minute, Blue Devil scrumhalf Max Coane put over a penalty to give his side the lead.
Still there were 13 minutes to go, but the defenses held on desperately.
New England has chances to score, but Duke held on.
New England College 24
Tries: Emanouil (2), Muniz, Arteaga
Conv: MacQueston (2)
Tries: Cara, Kalejaye, Cole, Deane
Meanwhile it was just as tense between St. John’s v. Denver. The teams’ kickers, Jack Michurski for St. John’s and Nat Prouty for Denver, traded kicks for much of the early going, leading to Denver going ahead 9-6.
Gardner crashed over for the first try of the game, putting St. John’s ahead 11-9. After that, Denver seemed to take control. Tries from Jace Jackson, Prouty, and scrumhalf Matt Clement, staked DU to a 28-11 lead just before halftime.
But a crucial moment for St. John’s came just before halftime. SJU pressured, and after a penalty was called, Gardner tapped and was over to stem the tide.
Down 28-18 at halftime, St. John’s continued their comeback. Tony Bauer, and then Phong Truong scored to put the Minnesotans up 30-28.
A Charlie Carlisle try with a Prouty conversion put Denver ahead once more 35-30. Then with two minutes to go, Gardner surged through the defense to score his third. Michurski’s conversion won the game for SJU.
Prouty scored 20 points for Denver.
Tries: Jackson, Prouty, Clement, Carlisle
Convs: Prouty (3)
Pen: Prouty (3);
St. John’s 37
Tries: Gardner (3), Bauer, Truong
Convs: Michurski (3)
Pens: Michurski (2)
New England torched Denver for 3rd place on Sunday 62-22, led by three tries from Sam Freihofner, for third place.
Denver University 22
Tries: Barlock, Slattery, Bram, Parker
New England College 62
Tries: Muniz (2), Emanouil, Freihofner (3), Jones, Mudford, Larson, Darbouze
Convs: MacQueston (6)
In the final, a powerful St. John’s pack met up with a faster, more mobile Duke squad.
After a period of Duke pressure, St. John’s got on the board first. They worked the ball downfield, and then, after a grubber was touched down in-goal, stole the put-in at the ensuing scrum. A series of pick-and-jams ended when prop Mitch Thune busted over for the 5-0 lead.
Duke got three back through a penalty, but St. John’s replied with another try. Once again, a hook against the head in the scrum led to a try, this time No. 8 Steve Olzak thundered over. 12-3 SJU led.
SJU kept up dominance in tight, especially in the maul, and it was appropriate that prop Gardner should get their next try – 19-3 SJU led at halftime.
Duke got a penalty early in the second half, but had a big mountain to climb. It was even bigger when outside center Steve Chesness sidestepped his way in for a try and a 26-6 St. John’s lead.
The Blue Devils needed to mount a rally right then. Wing Harry Rappaport appeared to get it started with his try, but SJU wing Joe Thompson replied with the same to make it 31-11. One more try for Duke, but it was too late.
In the end, the St. John’s forwards won the game on a grueling weekend, and those two tightheads deep in Duke territory hurt the Blue Devils.
St. John’s 31
Tries: Thune, Olzak, Gardner, Chesness, Thomspon
Convs: Mitchurski (3)
Tries: Rappaport, Cole
Pens: Coan (2);
Gardner was named tournament MVP and the all-tournament team was also selected:
Prop: Mitch Thume, St. John's University
Hooker: Paul Cadenhead, University of Denver
Prop: Nick Gardner, St. John's University
2nd Row: Casey Slattery, University of Denver
2nd Row: Colin Merrigan, St. John's University
Flanker: Colin Howard, Duke University
Flanker: Ben Challgren, Duke University
No. 8: Trevor Hanson, University of Denver
Scrumhalf: Tom Ortleib, St. John's University
Flyhalf: Tom Cole, Duke University
Center: Jay Muniz, New England College
Center: Jake Miller, University of Denver
Wing: Nick Emanouil, New England College
Wing: Joe Thompson, St. John's University
Fullback: Gabe Baum, University of Denver