Wild Weekend Caps Middlebury Run
Wild Weekend Caps Middlebury Run
Midway through the season, the Middlebury College rugby team held a meeting, and the team leadership told everyone that they had been eliminated from playoff contention.
This was at a time when no one was sure how many seeds conferences would get, and the Middlebury guys figured the five-team NECRC would be unlikely to get more than one. And, sitting 1-4, they figured the chance was gone.
“What we said was, we had a chance to finish strong and finish with some pride and get to 4-4,” said co-captain Jake Feury. “That’s all we were shooting for.”
It had been a tough road for Middlebury, back in DII after being in the DIAA ECRC. They had started the season without a coach, and only recently signed on Kerry Wiebe to run the team. They had started the season with a loss to Norwich, then a win over New Hampshire, and then close losses to Rhode Island, Norwich again, and Vermont. Total deficit from those last three games? Nineteen points.
“We’re a smaller team, but a fast team and we do well on a wide field, and we don’t get too many wide fields in this conference,” said Feury. “That’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just how it is, but we thought we could build toward something, and this being my last semester here, I wanted to leave the tea with something to build on.”
So the Middlebury plays looked at each other and nodded and said, “OK, let’s finish strong.”
Having lost 11-9 to Vermont in a defeat that seemed to kill their playoff hopes, Middlebury slammed New Hampshire 77-12 two weeks later. At 2-4 they heard that the NECRC would get two seeds to the national playoffs. A quick running of the math showed that two bonus-point wins could get Middlebury into the mix.
So their road game at UVM on November carried much meaning. Middlebury started to show how much they have improved and won, 19-12. The only kicker was that a close loss for Vermont, and the failure to get a fourth try by Middlebury seemed to kill Middlebury’s playoff hopes once more.
But then, with Friday’s final game approaching, a reprieve. Vermont said they would not move on regardless of how Friday’s game ended up. They would leave Middlebury v Rhode Island as a winner-take-all game for the #2 seed behind undefeated Norwich. Didn’t need to ask Middlebury twice, as they took URI down 42-13. Playing on their home pitch, Middlebury was able to use their pace out wide. Feury and Henry Kremer scored two tries each, while Jackson Yang, Lev Khodaverdy, and Kwame Mukasa scored one each.
Out of nowhere, and maybe with a little bit of luck, they had done what they thought was never going to happen. They’d won their final three games, and secured a playoff spot.
Two days later, they played that playoff game, and sparked by a scoring surge from Feury, won that game, too, 26-19.
“I saw back in March that we were going to have a problem with our schedule,” said Feury. “I thought that the final weekend of the season fell on the same weekend as the first weekend of the national playoffs, and I tried to do something about it. But in the end we played two games in three days, and we did OK. We went into that game knowing we could do it, even on a small pitch.”
Middlebury took the lead, held onto it for a while, but Plymouth State tied it up. And then, with time winding down, No. 8 and co-captain Kyle Dickey intercepted a pass and started an attack that got Middlebury into the Plymouth State zone. Yang almost made it to the tryline but was stopped. The forwards tried a pick-and-go, but against a bigger Plymouth State pack that wasn’t the right move. So they recycled quickly, and got it out to their flyhalf.
Flyhalf, however, is a story right there. Playing on Friday against URI Middlebury’s regular flyhalf, Dylan Gorman, was injured. That’s one of the problems of multi-game weekends - injuries can hurt. So Middlebury put in sophomore Cooper Babbitt, and he filled in admirably. At this crucial moment, Babbitt took off for the tryline, saw he was covered, and offloaded to prop Khodaverdy, and he took contact and offloaded to Feury for the game-winner.
Now Middlebury remains alive, albeit with a date with the #1-ranked team in the nation, Wisconsin-Whitewater. But they make the trip to Pittsburgh with lightened hearts.
“I was really bummed when we were 1-4,” said Feury. “But we came back, and got to 4-4, and then won a playoff game, so we’re 5-4. We won our final home game, and showed people what we can do, and where we can go. Now we play Whitewater, and you never know.”
No, you never do.