Rocky Gorge Mounts Epic Comeback to Capture the MAC Title vs Wilmington
Down by 14 points at the half, Gorge scores 24 unanswered points and hold Wilmington to a second half shutout to claim the D2 MAC Championship
After two tight semifinal matches in the newly formed Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC) DII playoffs, the stage was set again for the rivalry game of Rocky Gorge versus Wilmington. On Saturday, both semifinals were closer than the score suggested with Wilmington defeating Media, 57-12, and Rocky Gorge pulling away late against Doylestown, 46-29.
The conditions were perfect on Sunday for a showdown between the top two teams in the Mid-Atlantic. Gorge and Wilmington have squared off in the two previous conference finals with each team winning a game. Coincidently, the victor has advanced to the National Championship in each of the last two years with Gorge claiming Nationals in 2012 and Wilmington the runnerup in 2013.
Both teams run similar styles to pound the ball with their forwards-heavy attack, and use fitness and speed to recycle on defense. This match was a year in the making after Gorge lost to Wilmington in the conference championship then two weeks later in the National Playoffs. The new wrinkle to this year is that only the victor will advance to the National Round of Eight in Pittsburgh.
After the semifinal vs Media, Wilmington Coach Struan Murray talked about the upcoming match, “I don’t imagine the game is going to anything pretty. It’s not the way the teams are made up to play against each other. Like last year, I think it’s going to be made off of one mistake here, one mistake there. Maybe a team takes advantage of something at some point in time. Maybe one individual moment of skill by some player of either team. Two good teams that can be beaten and who can also win.” The coaches words were prophetic when it came to the end of the game.
The game was a tale of two halves. In the first half, Wilmington imposed its will with the wind at their backs with long kicks and hard forwards play. The tables turned in the second half with Gorge emphasizing ball control to score 24 unanswered points and a stout defense to pitch a shutout in the half.
Gorge struck first with a successful penalty kick by flyhalf LJ Pinjinburg for offsides. Wilmington came back with a try by flyhalf Chris Mattina followed by a converted penalty kick by Mattina to make the score 10-3. Gorge marched down the field threatening to score with the forwards within the 5-meter line. After committing consecutive offsides penalties at the goal line, the referee awarded Gorge with a penalty try to tie the game. Wilmington answered back by capitalizing on Gorge’s mistakes and get the ball wide to score two tries by Kevin Wiggins to close the half, 24-10. Wilmington’s Mattina kept Gorge on its heels all half with his booming kicks.
At half, Gorge Coach Will Brewington preached ball retention and to finish what they started. With the wind, Gorge started the second half with intensity and drove down the field. With a lineout within 10 meters of the try line, Gorge scrumhalf Nick Sylor snatched the long ball to dive in for a try. The Gorge defense stifled the Wilmington attack and tied the game with tight forwards play on a try by flanker Nicholas DiMichele. About five minutes later, Gorge took the lead by conservative forwards ball after a lineout with hooker/captain Matt Carroll slipping through the ruck at the try line to increase the lead to 29-24.
For the next 20 minutes, the teams were locked in a bitter defensive struggle against each other and at times against the referee. Opportunities were there for both teams as the clock wound down. In the final moments of the match, as Wilmington tried to get the ball out wide after a penalty, Gorge wing Ben Snyder intercepted the pass and sprinted for the try from twenty meters out as the Gorge sideline exploded. After a failed conversion, the referee blew the final whistle and Gorge earned right to be named the first MAC Champion by the score of 34-24.
Gorge Coach Brewington stated that “Physically, we totally stood up to them. We took everything they had and gave back even more. Down 14 at halftime, there was a sense of urgency in us. Out of 80 minutes, probably 60 was played on the downwind side of field. Their kicker pinned us back in the first half, but he didn’t do it in the second half. We stood up to them, they ran their stuff, we stood up to them.”
After the game, Gorge captain Carroll said “that was one of the toughest games I’ve ever played. We had to dig deep. Over the last three years, Wilmington has brought us to a higher level and we have brought them to a higher level. Today showed us that we can fall down to a good team, dig deep, keep our composure, change our gameplan, and win. They scored two tries on missed tackles. We had the proper strategy in the first half, it was just mistakes of execution. It was missed tackles and lost play in the back row on kicks. Once we cleaned that up in the second half, it was all downhill. I couldn’t be more proud of the way our club played today.”
The next opponent for Gorge is to be determined, as they will play the champions of the Midwest Conference in the quarterfinals of DII National Playoffs in Pittsburgh on May 17th. It may be a rematch of the National Championship of two years ago as the defending National Champion, Wisconsin, faces off against the Detroit Tradesmen on May 3rd.
Thoughts on the next round, Coach Brewington said, “It’s three weeks until a potential date with Wisconsin. Let’s get it done. Let’s do it now then move on. You got to beat the best to be the best. Why wait? It’s better too because we’re putting out our first and freshest as opposed to a second game on Sunday.” Coach added, “Our biggest asset going forward is our team-wide heart and will. It’s the refusal to capitulate.”
Carroll concluded that “We have a chip on our shoulder. This game was 51 weeks in the making. We lost this game last year to this team. We’re not playing on the memory of a 2012 championship team. We’re playing on the lost potential of last year. We’re playing angry.”
Rocky Gorge is all aboard as the train keeps rolling to represent the Mid-Atlantic in the National Playoffs.
Rocky Gorge 34
Tries: Penalty Try, Sylor, DiMichele, Carroll, Snyder
Convs: Pijnenburg 3
Pens: Pijnenburg 1
Tries: Mattina, Wiggins 2
Convs: Mattina 3
Pens: Mattina 1