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Three Days, Two Massive Wins, and Northwestern Vaults to GMW Playoffs

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Three Days, Two Massive Wins, and Northwestern Vaults to GMW Playoffs

Northwestern got by Illinois State in impressive fashion on Friday. Photo Courtesy Northwestern Rugby.

Coming into this weekend Northwestern University had a huge mountain to climb.

With Loyola and Illinois State on the inside track to be the top two in the Great Midwest South, the Wildcats entered this weekend having to beat both of them to make the conference semifinals.

On Friday they took the first step, beating Illinois State in impressive fashion 44-17.

Max Ward was the Man of the Match for making some massive tackles, hitting the rucks, and working hard throughout the game. Drew McDermott helped the attack click with some smart decision-making and good passing.

It was a surprise to many observers (ahem, GRR), but not to the Northwestern players.

"We only graduated two seniors from last year," said captain Fauzan Aryaputra. "So going into this season we felt pretty confident. We got some good athletes, guys who played football, and also a few guys with rugby experience, including some guys from England."

And they opened up the season with a 91-0 defeat of Illinois Chicago. But they followed that up with a 24-8 loss to rivals University of Chicago. That loss was part due to nerves, said Aryaputra, who is helping coach the team while injured—the coaching staff is headed up by Jim Hebson, who is ably assisted by Chuck Hamilton, Jake Flynn, Steve Merdinger, and John Perkaus.

But the team had no time to work on fixes because they had to play Northern Illinois three days later. Fortunately for Northwestern they did fix some issues and won 31-17. But after that "we I'd some of the things we needed to do and worked on that," said Aryaputra.

Getting the ball out wide, and quickly, was what they needed to do. 

"Going into the game on Sunday we believed that if we kept playing the same physical and fundamental rugby we had played in prior weeks, that we could come out on top," said club president Noah Erbe. "It was a battle, but we were able to pull out the win."

Yes they did, beating Loyola 39-24. Loyola did get the four-try bonus point which nudged them into 1st, but the victory was enough to clinch 2nd for Northwestern and a semifinal game against Northern Iowa.

The win was sparked in part by some scouting showing that Loyola played a very good, structured game. So, the Wildcats decided to take structure out of it.

"We wanted to play scrappy and force them to play on the back foot," said Aryaputra. "We wanted to see how they reacted under pressure."

And it worked.

Leading the way for Northwestern is some new talent such as towering center Linus Bray, whose kicking for territory has been very useful and certainly put Loyola under pressure. Bryan Karanja at flyhalf plays very smart, while on the wing Tooni Adisa has scored two hat tricks this season and is a constant threat to score. No. 8 Dean Uata is a powerful presence in the pack, while Daniel Solomon, Jabali Zoia, and Linus Bray just keep the machine moving forward.

"Thanks to our amazing coaches we've been able to develop a really solid squad," said Erbe. "The team as a whole has made huge steps forward this year. And Aryaputra agrees, touting the team's depth as a key asset. And while a road game at Northern Iowa won't exactly be easy, "I have the utmost confidence in our guys."

UNI will host Northwestern in one semifinal, and Loyola will host Wisconsin Whitewater. All four teams will move on to the finals day in Cottage Grove, Wisc. a week later with the final and the 3rd-4th game. The GMW Runner-UP will definitely get a national championship bid, and there remains a good possibility that the #3 team will also.