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Saturday, Dec 2, 2023

Ruggers Claim Northeastern Championship, Head to Nationals

Author: Doug Haber Staff Writer

This season has been a season of firsts for the Middlebury Rugby team. For the first time ever, the Panthers won the New England Championship; for the first time ever the Panthers attained the Northeastern Championship and for the first time ever, the Panthers qualified for the National Championships in the spring. Middlebury entered the Northeastern semi-finals, held at UMass-Amherst, as the number one seed; however, the Panthers were forced to face Yale, last year's New England champs and Middlebury's hated rival. Although Middlebury defeated Yale two weekends earlier in the New England finals, any Midd-Yale Rugby game is guaranteed to be a battle.

Nonetheless, within the opening minutes, Middlebury, led by captains Averill Withers '02 and Angus Birchall '03.5, set the tone for the game, once again capitalizing on the golden foot of Evan Moppert '02 for three points on a penalty. The Panthers momentum did not stop here. Ngetha Waithaka '04 broke through the Yale defense and juked his way 20 meters for a try. Middlebury's forwards, led by Casey McCann '01.5 and Tim Tutsch '04, outperformed their Bulldog counterparts, continually spoiling the Yale scrums and inflicting punishing hits to halt Yale's efforts to switch the play from Middlebury's open-running style to crash ball.

Throughout the half, play see-sawed from end to end, however, three minutes before the half-time whistle, Epeli Rokotuivekau '04 crashed through the Yale defense and gave Waithaka a brilliant pass for his second try of the day.

The second half was much like the first. Yale desperately attempted to improve their position, however, the Panther's stingy defense did not allow the Bulldogs to cross the try line. Ben Hurter '03, Joe Fernandez '02 and Francis Connolly '02.5 worked together to penatrate the Bulldog's offense and stop their plays before they could fully form. Yale appeared to be on the brink of scoring, however, Nick Dutton-Swain '02 utilized his speed and size to return a kick 30 meters and then pass to Kevin Immonje '02, who blitzed by several Bulldogs to score his 10th try of the year. Immonje's try put the nail in the coffin. Middlebury's defense, helped significantly by the play of Ulises Zanello '03 and Withers , withstood Yale's final assaults, and Middlebury pulled away with the victory 22-0.

On Sunday, Middlebury entered the Northeastern Championships against a strong Bowdoin squad in the cold and wind at UMass, determined to realize their preseason goal of reaching the Nationals. However, Middlebury was quite banged up from the previous day's battle with Yale, and Waithaka was unable to play due to a severely sprained ankle.

The game started slowly, and the momentum appeared to favor the Polar Bears. Nevertheless, sloppy play by Bowdoin led to penalties in the Polar Bear's end, and as has been the norm throughout the season, the Panthers were able to rely on the kicking of Moppert, who converted the penalties into six points for Middlebury. Middlebury's defense was led by the superb play of McCann. McCann has performed consistently all season, and after graduation this February, his leadership will be sorely missed at the Nationals. In addition to Waithaka's absence, to Middlebury's dismay, Withers was injured in the opening minutes of the game.

However, Middlebury's deep bench was able to fill in the gaps, and 30 minutes into the game, Immonje scampered 50 meters to score the Panther's first try of the game. The rest of the game involved an exhausted, injured Middlebury team attempting to thwart the offensive assaults of an energetic, rested Bowdoin squad. For the first time this season, Middlebury was forced to show true heart and desire; their talent would not get them through this time.

With only 10 minutes left, Tim Tutsch '04 adeptly gathered a loose ball and rumbled five meters to score the first try of his career. With renewed energy, the Panthers redoubled their efforts. Finally, the whistle blew, and the Panthers, beating Bowdoin 19-5, claimed the Northeastern Championship and earned the right to advance to the quarterfinals of Nationals.

Following the game, forwards Birchall said, "The Yale Ruggers just weren't into the match. From the opening kickoff, we had them pinned. The Bowdoin team played with a lot of heart and gave us a much better game. We are very excited about heading to the West Coast in April." Nationals will be held this spring and Middlebury's first opponent will most likely be Washington State. Through hard work, talent and true heart, the Midd Ruggers finally were able to attain the elusive goal that they had strived for for so long.