After a two-year march to return to the national stage, the Middlebury College Rugby Club (MCRC) traveled to Pittsburgh this past weekend, April 27 and 28, for its first shot to compete in the Division I-AA national tournament. The four-team bracket in Pittsburgh pitted Middlebury against St. Bonaventure, Dartmouth and the University of Pittsburgh with the overall winner advancing to the national semifinals in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Despite a strong showing by MCRC in the weekend’s first game, the round of 16, the Panthers dropped a heart-breaking contest to St. Bonaventure by a score of 29-28. After being eliminated from the tournament, the Panthers downed Pittsburgh on Sunday 20-7 in the final match-up of the season to determine national rankings for next season.
The weekend was a significant one in the history of MCRC, as it was the program’s first ever trip to the tournament at the D1 level. Graduating senior Luke Dauner ’13 touched on the team’s emotions prior to the games.
“We were all pretty excited to be on that stage, playing with the best college rugby teams in the country,” said Dauner. “We were very proud, as the first MCRC squad to be there, but we weren’t thinking about past years or of the success we had in DII. We were focused on 2013 and the job we had to do; we wanted to prove that we belonged there.”
A large adjustment for MCRC has been the increased level of play at the Division I level since the team started competing there in the fall of 2011. The competition was even fiercer during the tournament than the normal intensity that the team is used to coming up against.
“The level of play was more intense and more physical,” he said. “Being in Division I for a couple years now, we were used to the increased competition, but it was on another level in the playoffs.”
Saturday’s game against St. Bonaventure started off well for Middlebury as the team opened up a 13-5 lead on the Bonnies by halftime. MCRC then pushed that advantage to 18-5 before St. Bonaventure responded with 19 unanswered points to take a 24-18 lead with only 13 minutes left on the clock.
The Panthers were not done yet, as a try followed by a penalty conversion swung the game back into Middlebury’s favor at 28-24 with three minutes left. A final try by the Bonnies, however, sealed the final score at 29-24.
Dylan Whitaker ’13, one of the team’s two captains, pointed to mistakes as the team’s weakness in the loss.
“Our biggest weakness in the game was continuing to give up penalties, costing us field position and forcing us to exhaust ourselves on defense and long drives,” said Whitaker. “Our offense was able to execute at all points in the game though, regardless of the pressure, which I think speaks to the character and caliber of our players. Refusing to be cowed or disheartened by a deficit showed the heart of every man on the field.”
For Dauner, the loss was particularly tough to stomach given that it was his and several other seniors’ last shot at a national championship ring.
“It was one of the toughest losses I’ve ever been a part of. We controlled most of the game, but in the end we gave up a few too many penalties, and St. Bonaventure capitalized on those mistakes,” he said. “Everyone was pretty torn up, especially for the seniors for whom it was their last shot at a ring. However we had a game the next day and we had to move on.”
The next day, MCRC – missing six injured players from the contest on the day before – defeated a Pittsburgh team that had lost to Dartmouth the day before. In the final collegiate rugby game for four seniors, including Dauner, Whitaker, Nate Brown ’13 and Don Song ’13, MCRC battled rainy conditions to ride 20 points from Jake Feury ’16 to cement the 20-7 advantage.
“After a devastating loss the day before with a lot of injuries, we turned it around and played our hearts out, and it made me incredibly proud,” said Dauner. “We were obviously very bummed that we didn’t move on to the final four, but we were able to show everyone that we came to play, and that we belong in Division I. The team was in high spirits for the bus ride home.”
The Panthers will return to action this fall in East Coast Rugby Conference play.