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Indiana Wins Impressive Fighting Irish 7s

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Indiana Wins Impressive Fighting Irish 7s

IU in white, Brown in brown. Alex Goff photo.

Indiana won the Fighting Irish 7s on a frigid day of competition in South Bend, showing how unity and some serious 7s experience can trump other factors.

While the University of Indiana is indeed a club team, and not a varsity or almost-varsity program, they have a ton of talent, mostly from their home state and the rest from nearby states, and their style of play in 15s lends itself well to the 7s game. Add to that the fact that several of the IU players helped the Chicago Lions win a national men's club 7s title this past summer, and you've got the recipe for success.

The tournament itself was a 32-team monstrosity. Actually, it' ended up being 31 teams as Minnesota had planned to take a 2nd side to round out the numbers but couldn't quite swing it. Still, the size of the tournament made it into a knockout bracket, with a round of 32, round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals, and final. Teams that lost went into consolation brackets, all played on four adjoining fields at Notre Dame's recreation sports complex, centered on UND's Stinson Rugby Stadium.

Starting strong was crucial, them, and also enormously difficult as the games were played in wind, snow, and sub-freezing temperatures that didn't really let up all day. Teams would warm up quickly, play their games, and then retreat to the warmth of their vans or busses. For some teams, the starts was especially cold—IUPUI had a flat tire on the way and showed up just moments before kickoff time. Not surprisingly, they lost their opener. 

There were a few surprises on the day. Marian, not thought of as a speed team, played strong defense and moved the ball well to make it to the quarterfinals. Notre Dame College, which has been rebuilding these last couple of years and found wins hard to come by, produced some moments of magic, with a smart kick-and-chase shocking favorites Kutztown and leading the Falcons to a 19-5 win. They ultimately fell in the semis.

The hosts, Notre Dame, looked very polished, and so did Brown, playing a game of hard-nosed defense and smart and aggressive attack—wide passes, looping, and teamwork.

As the day went in, it appeared that St. Bonaventure, under the tutelage of Tui Osborne, would be the class of the competition. They controlled possession and was one team that handled restarts quite well. But in the semis, Brown beat them at their own game, starving Bonnies of enough ball to work their attack, and Brown made the final 22-7.

For Indiana, they had to battle back and forth with Louisville, and then the same with rivals Ohio State. That game featured a key backtracking tackle by Noah Green on Josh Leidich that saved a try and probably preserved the win. IU's ability to execute simple two-on-ones and play unselfishly saw them through.

In the semis, it was really one game too far for Notre Dame College, who suffered a couple of injuries and were outmatched 26-0 by Indiana. 

So to the final. There Indiana almost scored very early but the try was called back for a foot in touch. But with Head 7s Coach David Fee urging patience, they worked the ball carefully from side to side before Noah Brown had space on the outside.

Will Chevalier then sold a little double-sidestep and found space up the middle for a try and a 12-0 lead, before Brown responded to make it 12-5. Playing against the wind in the second half Indiana simply kept hold of the ball. Brown's defense didn't waiver, but they couldn't just tackle and tackle and tackle, and something had to give. Once again, a simple two-on-one did it. Chevalier, pinned his man and set Peyton Wall free, and that was it, 19-5.

"Our game plan going into it was get up and then manage the clock," said Chevalier. "I think we executed very well."

In the rest of the tournament, Western Michigan won the Survivor Cup bracket (the bracket for everyone who lost the opening round), winning four in a row including a dramatic overtime escape against Iowa Central 22-17. The game-winner there was scored with everyone almost falling to the floor they were so tired. They have to be pleased that former Eagle Ata Malifa's wife is from Kalamazoo and he could help them. Asked to judge what it meant to have Malifa coaching them for 7s, the players all said it was "priceless."

St. Bonaventure, disappointed at not getting in the final, took third, and Kutztown, likewise not where they wanted to be, took the Plate—the bracket for teams that lost in the quarterfinals—33-5 over Marian.

Both semis for those were exciting with KU getting by Ohio State 24-20, and Marian edging Notre Dame 21-19. Adrian took the Shield (for those who lost the Round of 16 games) 15-10 over Kentucky in overtime.

This was a well-run tournament that would have been perfect had it been sunny and 55 degrees. Despite the cold, it was kept on schedule, and somehow Justin Hickey's head didn't explode as he oversaw Notre Dame (who entered two sides) and the tournament.

Indiana receives an invitation to the NCR May Madness 7s in New Orleans, and it's likely several other teams will get an invitation based on their performance in South Bend, especially the D2 sides that fronted up quite well—Marian, Adrian, and Survivor Cup 3rd-place Aquinas.