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Harsh Lessons Lead to Dramatic Wins for VT, Louisville

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Harsh Lessons Lead to Dramatic Wins for VT, Louisville

Brenan Mortonstrauss scored the game-winner for Louisville. Will Fagan photo.

Louisville and Virginia Tech will face off in the final of the NCR D1AA playoffs after both won their semifinals over the weekend.

Goalkicking and momentum shifts were hugely influential on this day.

For Virginia Tech this was a follow-on from the attitude they have had for the last two years—they don't care who they play or what tough teams beat them, they don't get discouraged. Instead they use those games to learn and get better.

St. Joe's started the game with plenty of possession and weren't fazed by Virginia Tech's power in the tackle. They finally got into Hokie territory and when Virginia Tech was penalized flanker Tom DeRosa put a penalty over. The Hawks started to win the territorial game and got another kickable penalty at 18 minutes. That one, however, drifted wide. 

The Hokies attacked after that and spent a long period in St. Joe's territory, charging through tackles and causing the Hawks all kinds of trouble. But little handling errors, penalties, or turnovers meant they couldn't quite convert. After about 15 minutes of knocking on the St. Joe's door, Virginia Tech nabbed a loose lineout and ran through 21 phases before getting a penalty, tapping and bashing it over through Jack Murphy, who was involved several times in that sequence.

That put Virginia Tech up 7-3. St. Joe's defended doggedly but a couple of players paid for it with injuries—Connor Hohman hurt his hand quite badly, got it strapped up and kept going. But early in the second half the big lock had to finally go off for another knock.

That was a loss for St. Joe's as his size and power were missed. 

St. Joe's spent move of the first 10 minutes of the second half in the Virginia Tech zone and looked to have an overlap to score, but wing Will Ritchie intercepted the final pass and took off for about 90 meters to score under the posts. 

It was a massive turnaround and Virginia Tech had a 14-3 lead.

 Now the Hokies were happy to defend—in the Rugby East they are used to that. But they had to stay disciplined. A penalty set up a St. Joe's lineout and when their maul was dragged down by Jack Murphy the Hawks had a penalty try and now were within four at 14-10.

Right after that, however, St. Joe's were penalized and captain and No. 8 Hunter Danesi was good on the ick to make it a converted try lead at 17-10.

Now they had to hold on. Slowly St. Joe's worked their way out of their end, and almost scored before the ball was stolen right on the Hokies' tryline. Finally flyhalf Will Woods called his own number and was over. DeRosa missed a kick he'd probably say he hits 90% of the time, and so Virginis Tech held on to a slim 17-15 lead.

Still there was time. Damesi had a shot to add three points but sliced the kick a bit. Still it allowed Virginia Tech to keep the ball in the St. Joe's end, and in fact the Hokies bottled the Hawks up really well and closed it out.

With Louisville vs Binghamton, the Liberty side just ran out and challenged the Cardinals at the point of contact. Playing with nothing to lose and with plenty of attitude, Binghamton succeeded to frustrating Louisville early. Favorites and top-ranked teams sometimes have a precarious psyche and Louisville found themselves a little bit rushes as the clock ticked by with no points.

In fact it was Binghamton that scored first with a long-range penalty goal from Michael Davitt. 

But Louisville responded with a quick reply. they got a turnover and hooker Angelo Eklou just took off down the tramlines and could not be stopped. It was a massive momentum shift and Louisville, shorthanded with a yellow card, seemed to settle down a little after that.

The first half ended, however, with Binghamton taking back the initiative. The Devils camped out in the Louisville end and seemed content to bash it in with the forwards. But when the Cardinal forwards got sucked in, Davitt sent a wide skip pass out to loose forward William Otondi. The freshman (Pelham HS) had all kinds of room and no Louisville defender near him and he made no mistake.

Davitt was good on the conversion and again Binghamton was in the lead, and again Binghamton was under Louisville's skin. This was especially apparent after the restart. With only a minute or two remaining in the first half, center Liam Heanue caught the ball in the air and slipped through some pretty iffy Cardinal tackling. With one man to beat Heanue fed forward Dan Ahern, who galloped down the sideline for 40 meters to score under the posts.

Davitt was good on the kick and Louisville was in some real trouble down 17-7. Binghamton then got another penalty in the Louisville half and they took the lineout. Somehow Louisville survived that and went into halftime. 

"We came out playing really structured rugby for the first 15 minutes. Great drives down the field and with very effective support lines in attack. That went south real quick when we decided to start going away from our game plan and shape as discussed this last week," said Louisville DOR Emil Walton.

The Cardinals, he added, "were fighting an uphill battle with small mental errors."

It took seemingly forever for Louisville to get to a place they wanted to be in. Binghamton ran at them and defended undeterred. Still the errors crept in. With nine minutes to go, freshman took off on a run around the weakside and was in for the try. Aaron Stevenson converted and it was 17-14.

The Cardinals broke through out of their own end and looked to threaten with maybe two minutes to go. Binghamton turned the ball over and kicked deep. The Cards counterattack was on point at a crucial time and they went wide right, getting around the Devils' perimeter. Chris Jensvold charged closer to the line, and after the forwards tried to bash it over, a nice flat pass to Aaron Stevenson saw the flyhalf dive over. The kick was good from Donlon and Louisville had the lead for the first time in about an hour. 

There was still about 30 seconds to go, but Louisville won the restart and kicked to touch to win it.. 

"We came out playing our style of rugby but we found ourselves in a very familiar place—playing from behind and chasing a scoreline. We have a few areas of our game to clean up before the National Championship against VT in a few days. Regardless I'm proud pf the guys fighting till the end," said Walton.

This will be a final between two teams that love to battle. Both have learned some harsh lessons. This weekend in Houston will be a thrilling final exam.