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Gael Force. Saint Mary's Holds Off Navy for D1A Championship

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Gael Force. Saint Mary's Holds Off Navy for D1A Championship

Inoke Waqavesi sends the ball wide. Calder Cahill photo.

It's hard to imagine it could get any better.

OK, maybe it could. Neither team was perfect. But then again, neither team abandoned their way of playing. Neither team backed down even a little bit. It was, in the end, the most entertaining, the most intense, and the most dramatic D1A final you could wish for.

Saint Mary's held off Navy 26-22 to win the D1A final, logging their first victory since 2017 and fourth overall—tied with Life for the most since D1A was begun in 2011. Playing their open, pass to anyone and run from anywhere game, the Gaels ran out to a 26-5 lead, only to see Navy come storming back and almost take it.

Certainly the Gaels seemed loose. They arrived in Houston with tie-dye warmup shirts evoking their Bay Area roots and perhaps providing a contrast to the at-attention Naval Cadets. They played like it. Within the first few minutes Saint Mary's was on top. Overpursuit from the Navy defense left a gap for Dominic Besag to sidestep and cut through. The center and Scholz Award finalist was through untouched and was over. Mario Storti converted and the Gaels were ahead 7-0.

Playing quick and spreading the field, the Gaels did it again. This time Besag drew the attention of two defenders who weren't going to let the center beat them again. OK, no problem; Besag wrapped around for an offload to his center partner Erich Storti, and Storti sidestepped his way to paydirt. Kick good, and it was 14-0.

Things settled down a little after that. Navy looked to kick a little but found that with the wind behind the backs of Saint Mary's the kick exchanges generally favored the Gaels. What worked better was Navy powering through the phases. Through that they were able to force penalties and take the lineout. Twice they got into scoring position using the maul, and the Gaels were able to hold them out. They payed for it with a yellow card to prop John Battle Wilson (more on him later), but they did just enough.

Finally, when the yellow card had expired, the forwards went to work. hooker Nate Deegan and Battle Wilson worked a back-and-forth open-field play that would put most center pairing to shame It was a brilliant foray into the Navy 22, and when the ball came free in the ruck, Battle Wilson was there to take the pass and go over for a try to make every front-rower smiles. It was teamwork and athletic and straight out of the Gaels' top drawer.

Mario Storti converted and it was 21-0 and Navy was in real trouble.

Fixing a Hole

Back came the Midshipmen and they exploited penalties to work their way down the field. Drew Baublitz tested their D and Roanin Krieger was very useful at flyhalf. But it was captain Ben Haugh and flanker Vaughn Schmitz that really set the tone at the gainline.

Finally, Navy got close to the tryline, and they worked their short yardage attack. Of course it was Haugh who picked up and was over. 21-5, and that's how the half ended.

Navy Head Coach just wanted his team to be a bit more accurate and a bit more clinical when they had scoring chances. They knew they could come back.

The Wind Cries Saint Mary's

Early in the second half Navy looked to use the wind but the wind was a little weaker now that the sun had dipped below the trees. That meant that the Gaels were still able to use Erich Storti's kicking game and flyhalf Inoke Waqavesi's magical distribution skills.

Quick ball down the line saw Besag around the corner to set up Sosaia Pongi to race in at the corner. Try number four for the Gaels and as Pongi celebrated (we're kidding, he got up and jogged back with a shrug and maybe a hin of a smile, and nothing more) Navy was looking down the business end of a 26-5 deficit.

Turn Me Loose

If anyone was being held back from a physical confrontation, they weren't anymore. Navy's defense came flying in and the pressure started to tell as Saint Mary's started to drop balls. Their accuracy in some fairly straightforward passing started to fail them, and Navy, whose scrum tested the Gaels and got a couple of penalties and free kicks, started to get on the front foot.

Penalties and penalties led to a maul close to the Saint Mary's line. With Gaels captain Kaiponi Kayoshi in the sin bin for collapsing a maul, Navy went right back to that lineout, added a misdirection wrinkle, and put William Webb over for their second try of the day. Krieger converted and it was 26-12. 

Scrum frequency ramped up as both defenses forced knock-ons. Certainly Saint Mary's felt they made some unforced errors, as well. Navy was able to hold out Saint Mary's from another try, one that might have put them out of sight, and then from a scrum at their own five, cleared their lines, got a penalty, and found themselves attacking within the Saint Mary's 22 moments later.

The result was a long series of phases bashing at the Gaels' line. Slowly, inexorably, they inched their way forward with simple pick-and-goes.

Finally, as they set up for one more pick, a quick pass to Schmitz allowed the flanker to dive over. The lead was almost gone. Saint Mary's 26 Navy 19.

Here You Come Again

Navy added a penalty from Krieger and now, with the score 26-22, it was a simple equation. As time wound down, if Navy scored a try, they'd probably win. If Saint Mary's made enough stops, the Gaels would win. Another short yardage sequence ended with Saint Mary's getting out of it, and they were at one point in a position to run out the clock. Bit, once again, Navy's immense defense took the ball back.

There followed several minutes of Navy probing to get back in scoring position. This was a heroic period of play. The tackles Saint Mary's were making were all game-savers—Head Coach Tim O'Brien said some were made by just the slightest ankle-tap. Navy used impact sub Max Smith to find gaps and other reserves such as Ian Bullock and Ed Soeder to win rucks. Haugh was immense and Jake Cornelius always dangerous. 

Finally, as the clock inched past 80 minutes, one last hit jarred the ball loose. Saint Mary's set the ruck and Besag kicked it dead. Saint Mary's had survived.

This was a heroic game and a celebration of the American collegiate game. Navy Head Coach Gavin Hickie shook his head sadly but philosophically,

"We just needed to be more accurate," he said. "We'll learn from it and grow and improve. But the guys gave everything."

The grit and determination was matched by the Gaels, who hung on even as they hurt themselves with dropped balls and mistakes.

"I would like to come back here and really play the way we can play," said Head Coach Tim O'Brien. "But, in the end, we did win against a really exceptional Navy team."

Of the players who excelled, Schmitz, Webb, and Haugh were excellent for the Midshipmen. Waqavesi was the puppet master at flyhalf for Saint Mary's and Erich Storti was the player of the game. But the battle in the trenches, led by Battle Wilson and lock Lleyton Delzell, was where the game was won. Yes Navy scored from close-in, but not every time. Battle Wilson, who scored his try in part because he wanted to make up for getting a yellow card, was a rock.

Saint Mary's 26
Tries: Besag, E. Storti, Battle Wilson
Convs: M. Storti 3

Navy 22
Tries: Haugh, Webb, Schmitz
Convs: Krieger 2
Pens: Krieger