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Life Survives UCF in SIRC Final

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Life Survives UCF in SIRC Final

N'Keiah Butler dives over for Life's third try. (Photo courtesy DoctorHawkPhoto)

Life and Central Florida were expected to compete for the South Independent DI title yesterday, and while the pair did make it to the title match, the weekend was anything but predictable.

The teams had two very different experiences on Saturday. The Running Eagles walloped Florida State 102-0 in the semifinals. Kaitlyn Broughton, Deshel Ferguson, Nicole Strasko and Christina Swift all had hat tricks, while Gabi Bergamin, Marissa Hols, Sarah McCandless, Madison Ohmann (six conversions), Megan Rom and Heidi Tressler also scored. Central Florida, on the other hand, held off Florida 34-32 to advance.

But when the then-defending champs took the Life University pitch on Sunday, there was little sign of fatigue. Central Florida put the ball in the hands of some big, strong, north-south runners, and did well to retain possession for long sets of phases. And when the inevitable handling error occurred, UCF was able to steal possession in the scrum, which was a huge advantage, especially in the first half.

“UCF has been the South champion for several years in a row, and they have some very talented players,” Life coach Ros Chou commented. “So we knew the regular-season game against them [53-0 win] didn't reflect what they were capable of and they were not going into this final lightly, and it showed.”

Central Florida forced Life to play a lot of defense, and while the Running Eagles remained calm and met UCF behind the gainline often, the battery took its toll.

“The coaching staff knew going into it that playing two days in a row, with UCF possibly being the Sunday matchup, was going to be quite a tough task for our team because of our 21-person roster,” Chou said. “Recovery was going to be extremely important, and it was going to be a forwards battle.”

Nevertheless, Life did a great job of keeping UCF off of the scoreboard during the first quarter and was rewarded in the 15th minute. With play finally in UCF’s end, fullback Broughton took in the game’s first try from about 10 meters out, 5-0.

Shortly afterward, McCandless attempted to put her fliers into space, but the grubber from deep in Life’s end landed in UCF Agnes Furst’s hands instead. The shifty wing raced 30 meters for the tying points, 5-all. The try marked Life’s first try-against in 2015.

McCandless retook the lead for her team in the 28th minute, converting a penalty kick. Before the end of the half, Ferguson did a great job corralling a messy pass into a score, darting around a swarming defense and into try zone, 13-5 into the break.

When N'Keiah Butler peeled off a driving maul for a try in the 45th minute (18-5), it appeared that maybe Life had found its rhythm and would pull away, but that was not the case. As fatigue began to set in, Life struggled with discipline and the penalties followed. With 12 minutes remaining, Samantha Elmore was yellow-carded for repeat offenses, and UCF capitalized, sending Sarah Carully over for the converted try, 18-10.

But to Life’s credit, the team absorbed all that UCF threw at them for the remainder of the game, and there the game ended at 18-10.

“They showed a great deal of character sustaining almost 20 phases of attack and keeping UCF out of the try zone at the end of the match,” Chou commended. “As a coach, I'm extremely happy with the team and their performance. It was my personal hope for this first-year program to make it to the first round of D1 playoffs, and we've done that.”

The work is far from over, however, and some issues need to be resolved before nationals – most notably, the scrum.

“We are really lucky to have a large coaching staff at Life, and Dylan Fawsitt, our scrum coach, will address the issues we had on Sunday in the set piece and hopefully sort out what we need to for the next round,” Chou said. “We will have to do the best we can with another Saturday-Sunday schedule with our light roster.”

With only 21 players on the active roster, the Running Eagles have their work cut out for them, but Chou has faith in her squad.

“The team wasn't happy with [Sunday’s] result,” Chou confessed. “That shows the standards they've set for themselves and what Life University rugby means to them. They are hungry for feedback and want to use these next two weeks to prepare for what will be even more difficult opposition. This group is always looking for constant improvement and I love that about them. I couldn't have asked for a better group and I'm excited to see how this first-year Life U team performs at playoffs.”

The Round of 16 will be contested April 10-12, and although USA Rugby has not released the seeds for each location, it is very likely that Life will play at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Albuquerque, Pittsburgh and Stanford are the three other sites.

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