After narrowly missing out on a trip to the USA Rugby Club 7s National Championships, the future of Rocky Gorge 7s looks bright and proves that the club is a major player in the Mid-Atlantic Conference. After months of hard work and training from players and coaches alike, Rocky Gorge was one standing point away from booking a trip to Nationals in Colorado. Although Gorge didn’t reach the mountaintop, the ability, talent, and passion is there to ride the club through 15s this fall and spring and fight again next summer to the Club 7s National Championships.
For the last few years, Gorge has dabbled in the 7s scene playing mostly as a social side. Seeing the immense talent of the 15s side and wealth of young college players in the area, the 7s program was reignited after the end of the 15s season under coaches Chuck Moore, Ashton Thomas, and Will Brewington. Coach Moore said, “It would be a waste of these talents to not have a 7s program. In fact, it would hurt the club in the long run as players would have to go elsewhere and young college players would find another team.”
Along with the assistance from 15s head coach Nick DiMichele, each coach brought their own unique talents and skills to the coaching staff. The coaches worked together to bring the best out of the players and each had their hands in recruiting and game planning.
The coaches pooled all of their resources to cultivate talent from the existing DI and DIII squads as well as from the college ranks of Salisbury, University of Maryland, James Madison, LSU, University of South Carolina, UMBC, Mount St. Mary’s, and Eleanor Roosevelt HS. The interest was considerable enough to field two sides at each competition. A total of 17 players played for the Gorge A side over the course of summer to amazing results.
Captains Aki Raymond and Nick Kuhl led the side by example bringing their considerable experience with them. Sam Ausden, William Lomax, Andre Van De Merwe, Nick DiMichele, Chase Lawrence, Jamel Murray, John Long, and Bryan Daniel provided the backbone of the team as experienced Gorge players who played all summer.
New club players, Varun Murthy and Teddy Jackson, and excellent college players Jordan and Ryhan Bakouche and Eugene Becton from Salisbury; Jacob Powers from University of South Carolina; Trevor O’Neil from LSU; Matt Sarna, Matt Reilly, and Matt Donnelly from University of Maryland; Chris Mandhe and JP from UMBC; John Eric Bell and Eric Carlson from JMU; Rafael Orellana from Eleanor Roosevelt HS; and Sean Hartig from Mount St. Mary’s each made a significant contribution to the success of the club.
The first opportunity for Gorge to show their abilities was in mid-June at Baltimore-Chesapeake’s Rites of Spring tournament. Gorge went undefeated beating the Washington Irish, 47-0, in the cup final. The defense was spectacular all day only yielding a single try over five games.
In its first MAC qualifier on June 25th, Gorge was one of six teams at the Blue Ball 7s in Wilmington, Del. Gorge went 2-1 in pool play beating Schuylkill River and Baltimore-Chesapeake, but suffered a loss against NOVA. In the semifinals, a rematch versus Schuylkill ended with a 24-5 defeat. Although Gorge didn’t make the final, it beat Washington to take the 17 standing points for third place.
Two weeks later at the NOVA Ruggerama 7s, Gorge claimed its first championship title blasting rival Schuylkill River, 40-26, in the final. After escaping a rough three games in pool play with a 1-1-1 record, the young team turned it on in the playoffs. Gorge first edged NOVA, 12-10, in the semifinals setting up another epic battle against Schuylkill River in the cup final.
The final was rematch between Schuylkill River and Rocky Gorge where Schuylkill won, 19-7, earlier in the day. In an incredibly close and scrappy game, Schuylkill led 21-14 at the half. The clubs exchanged tries to begin the second half until Aki Raymond tied the match for Gorge at 26-26. With two minutes left, Nick DiMichele and Raymond scored back-to-back tries off kickoffs to seal the 40-26 victory for Gorge and earn their first qualifier win.
“It was a back and forth game and they were up five minutes into the second half,” Moore exclaimed. “We came back and at the three minute mark, we scored a try and won two kickoffs in a row and scored tries off them immediately to go up... They finally decided to pull it together as a team and play defense. It all came together for us.”
A week later at Gorge’s home tournament, the Slug 7s, the squad endured a difficult Saturday going 1-2 pool play failing to make the playoffs. Gorge recovered to beat Pittsburgh, 24-12, in the fifth place match. After the final match being called for lightning, Schuylkill and NOVA shared the first place points making the final tournament decide who goes to Nationals.
Going into the MAC 7s Championships in Richmond, Va., six standing points separated the top three clubs. In order to advance to Colorado, Schuylkill had to at least place in third, while Rocky Gorge had to finish two places ahead of NOVA to move on.
In pool play, Schuylkill River was undefeated and NOVA and Rocky Gorge finished their opening rounds with 2-0-1 records after tying their head-to-head matchup, 12-12. Based on point differential, Rocky Gorge was awarded the top seed and would play the Pittsburgh Pandas in the semifinals.
In the semifinals, Schuylkill River dispatched NOVA, 21-7, and Rocky Gorge beat Pittsburgh, 28-21, to face the top club. With winning its semifinal, Schuylkill River locked up its place in Nationals and Rocky Gorge had to beat the Philadelphia team to book its ticket.
In the final, Schuylkill River starved the young Rocky Gorge squad to win, 19-5. The Exiles led the entire game taking advantage of Gorge’s turnovers in their own end. Schuylkill scored two first half tries to lead 14-0 and then extended the lead to 19-0. Determined to be not shut out, Rocky Gorge’s Jordan Bakouche scored in the final moments of the match, 19-5.
Even though they had lost the final, Rocky Gorge still had an outside chance to advance to Colorado, but NOVA did its job in the third place game barely surpassing Pittsburgh, 19-17. With the victory, NOVA earned the second spot to Nationals by one point.
Coach Moore was proud of his squad and knows there is plenty of room for improvement. “For a first year program, I would have to give us an B. We won two tournaments, and then came in 2nd, 3rd, and 5th in the others. The one that killed us was the 5th place in our own tournament. To be one of the top programs, you simply cannot falter like that or take a break as we did.”
“The MAC had eight teams compete with only the top two moving on,” Moore added. “Unfortunately, we came in 3rd and we missed the National playoffs by one single season point. To put that in perspective, that is finishing one place higher in any of the tournaments and we would have been in the show. Which by the way would have been an amazing feet as we competed against some long established and nationally competitive 7s programs in Schuylkill River, NOVA, Norfolk and others. We took on those teams head on and beat each one of them.”
According to coach Ashton Thomas, the takeaway from this summer is that experience definitely plays a part in success. “I'm glad our boys got to see what buying into a system does for a team like Schuylkill River, who didn't have the athletes we had, but are so well coached and organized. I expect they will do well at Nationals.”
“The outlook of Gorge 7s is very bright,” Thomas said. “With us only coming one point short of Nationals this year with a team 90% full of college kids speaks volumes of where we can go. I'm proud to be apart of the growth of this program. We will be a problem for the MAC in upcoming years and I'm confident the tables will turn.”
After not being relevant in the 7s scene and focusing on the 15s game, based on this summer’s performance, Gorge proved that it is a complete rugby club. Moore explained, “Prior to the summer, some other clubs were trying to steal our players saying such things as "Gorge does not know how to play 7s", "join with us because there is no way Gorge can compete on your own", "you are going to waste your summer with them", "they have no coaches or players that know how to play 7s" and other derogatory statements about Rocky Gorge throughout the season. MAC teams soon figured out that Gorge could put together a 7s side on short notice. We can recruit players that know how to play 7s and we do have coaches that know how to coach 7s. I am excited to see what we can do with a year to plan for next season.”
Captain Nick Kuhl echoed that sentiment and is excited for the future of the club. “Gorge is now a relevant name. It’s not just Schuylkill and NOVA. As a group of guys to do what we did this year is incredible.”
“Just to have our name relevant in 7s and to make such an impact in 15s [this past season] and hopefully do that again in 15s this season sets up for an amazing next summer,” Kuhl said. “With a lot of good recruits and any big time players that just want to play for a competitive 7s team in the area, Rocky Gorge is now a name and a team where they can go to have a shot at Nationals.”
The future is promising for Rocky Gorge in both 7s and 15s. How far it can go is up to the players and coaches and their will to succeed.
Updated 12:33 - 6 Oct 2016 by Rocky Gorge