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Small-College Champs Christendom Keep the Faith

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Small-College Champs Christendom Keep the Faith

The Christendom big men were just part of the story. Ollie Mide photo.

As Christendom's players knelt to sing and pray after beating New Mexico Tech in the Cohen Cup final for men's small college fans saw exactly what it takes to win a championship—faith.

Now, it doesn't have to be faith in God, but a unification of purpose certainly helps a lot. Christendom is a conservative Catholic university and they don't hide their religious faith, but that all also comes out as faith in each other on the rugby field. And when you hear them call out for a specific saint to "pray for us" you're tempted to say, "no need; you all have each other's backs."

Down 29-0 in the semifinals against Holy Cross (another Catholic institution) Christendom stormed back to win 44-34 in a game where they didn't really change anything except their execution. In the final against NMT, the Crusaders once again didn't panic, didn't turn on each other. Instead they fought all the way to the one-inch line.

It was a back-and-forth game and Christendom looked a little stronger using the big brothers Owen Kennedy at No. 8 and John Kennedy at lock. Flankers John Ascough and James Hambleton were industrious in support, and scrumhalf Andrew Mead kept them all working. The result was Kennedy picking up and at six-foot-twenty-eight (we hear he's 6-7 but we're pretty sure he's, like, 11 feet tall) all he had to do was reach over.

New Mexico Tech had shown plenty of fight already and diminutive but fearless flyhalf Milaan Van Wyk (famously seen here giving a post-game interview with his face wrapped in plastic wrap and ice) flying all over the field to win ball, beat defenders, and solve problems, they kept the game moving. The center pairing of Nicholas Hutt and Willie Uhrle was very effective and they set the platform for scrumhalf Elijah Naranjo, who is a talent, to dummy and score. 

That combination of Naranjo and Van Wyk set up the next score, with Uhrle carrying two over with him. But Christendom's backs can run, too, and flyhalf Thomas Santschi found a seam and fed outside center Matt Westin in a perfect example of getting past a rushing defense can put half a dozen players out of the play in a moment.

Christendom 12 New Mexico Tech 10.

Then back to the forwards. Close-in Owen Kennedy is almost impossible to stop because, despite his height (he's, like, 12 feet tall) he stays low and uses his power low, driving the first tackler back. That's when he can us his reach to make the line.

That was 17-10 at halftime and then it was 24-10. It wasn't the prettiest of tries, as many of the players seemed to be a big distracted. Mead tapped quickly on a penalty and popped it to Santschi. The flyhalf was tackled and no one seemed ready to win that ruck, so the scrumhalf, Mead, had to do it. He did an excellent job, winning that ruck pretty much on his own, and then center Chris Usher came in, picked up, stepped out of two tackles and carried one more defender over. It was a bit of "oops" moment for both teams as they should have had their heads in the play more. Usher did, and he had a try. 

After that followed a furious sequence in which Mew Mexico Tech tried to take the game back. Uhrle scored through a crowd moments later, But then a yellow card for a high-tackle looked to put the Miners in a bind. Christendom got down close to the NMT line, only to commit and penalty and see Van Wyk tap and link with Naranjo, who scampered 60 meters. At one point he was surrounded by eight Christendom defenders, and tried the old Matt Dawson dummy to slow them down. It worked long enough for support to get there for the ruck. Then a perfect flat pass from Van Wyk to wing Alejandro Lopez to burst through. it was goalline-to-goalline stuff, and showed that New Mexico Tech had faith, too. 

Now it was 24-24. NMT almost got the lead but were a shade impatient, and Christendom's wing Hugh Wingate didn't give up on the play, forcing a dropped ball right at the goalline. Slowly Christendom worked their way down the field again and only to see Tech break out through fullback Hunter Williams. 

And then a run from No. 8 Dane Robergs put the Miners close and Van Wyk proved once again that the game is for all sizes, and a smallish man can beat bigger guys but going lower and hard. He did that, and scored. New Mexico Tech had their first lead since the early minutes, 29-24 with five minutes to go. And what a five minutes. Christendom forced a scrum, went right, and then back left where Westin fed Usher, who popped a basketball chest pass to Usher for a try in the corner.

Now it was 29-29 and time for one more. Another key run from Wingate got Christendom going, and then a penalty. Ascough tapped quickly but was tackled immediately by Robergs, which was dumb because he hadn't made any effort to retreat 10 meters, and he was yellow-carded immediately. Another tap move, this one not being complex—Kennedy taps, Kennedy runs forward until someone tackles him. Then out wide to Westin, did he have men outside him? He cuts back instead, pops to Usher Then the locks, John Kennedy and Nicolas Ward get it closer, and finally Owen Kennedy beats four men on a pick-and-dive. 34-29. Christendom wins.

For New Mexico Tech it was a coming-out party that showed they have a ton of talent and commitment. They didn't wilt in the semi (28-21 over St. John's) and they didn't wilt in this final. Some of their players, Naranjo notably, are special. 

For Christendom the joy was unbound, and why not? They watched a 24-10 lead disappear into a 29-24 deficit and didn't get on each other, didn't lose faith; they played rugby, and pulled it out.

"This will be great to bring back to Christendom," said Westin. "Maybe get some new players in for the next season. We're a small school, around 500 students; I think this will be great for the program."

Christendom 34
Tries: O. Kennedy 3, Usher, Wingate, Westin
Convs: Mead 2

New Mexico Tech 29
Tries: Uhrle 2, Naranjo, Van Wyk, Lopez
Convs: Van Wyk 2