Written by John G. Nalls
Gonzaga Rugby completed their quest for their first National Championship in the 26-year history of the program with a thrilling 27-26 victory over defending champion Jesuit High School of Sacramento in the Boys High School Rugby National Championships in Elkhart, Indiana on May 17. The chalk final featured the two top ranked teams in the country as the No. 1 seeded Marauders, undefeated champions of Northern California, faced off against the second seeded Eagles, champions of the Mid Atlantic Varsity Rugby Conference, and the play on the pitch did not disappoint.
On a beautiful, cool day with a significant wind, both teams traded kicks and field position in an early part of the match marked by excellent tackling and some uncharacteristic handling errors by both sides. Jesuit was able to take advantage of a Gonzaga penalty deep in their own territory to score a try at the 8:00 minute mark after several phases of rucks for an early 7-0 advantage following a successful conversion kick. The early score seemed to ignite the Eagles, however, as their forward pack then began to establish themselves and slowly work down the field. A hands in penalty on Jesuit at the 8:53 mark resulted in Gonzaga's first score on a penalty kick by senior Fly Half and All-American Ben Cima to trim the deficit to 7-3.
After alternating unsuccessful penalty kicks by each side, Gonzaga was then able to wrestle a lead they would never relinquish. A 20-meter try by senior Outside Center Michael Barry on a line break after a scrum and several phases at the 27 minute mark, followed by a Cima conversion, made the score 10-7. On the last play of the half, Gonzaga was able to obtain a critical additional score while it still had the wind when senior Fullback Stephen Beckerle found the try zone on a hands out after several well executed Gonzaga phases to increase their lead to 17-7 and gain some additional momentum at the break.
The teams again exchanged field position to begin the second half and it looked to be a low-scoring affair until a Cima Penalty kick at the 11-minute mark increased the Eagle advantage to 13 points at 20-7. At the 17:35 mark, Barry struck again to touch one down from 30 meters out following a Cima pop kick to junior Wing Reggie Corbin, who made a nice line break before offloading. After a successful Cima conversion, the score stood at 27-7 and it appeared that the Eagles were well on their way to a victory. However, the six-time national champion Raiders had other ideas and they quickly answered with a try on a hands out at the 20-minute mark to reduce the Gonzaga lead to 27-14 after a successful conversion.
Five minutes later, Jesuit struck again with a try after several phases to trim the deficit to eight at 27-19 when their conversion attempt sailed wide of the mark. Continued excellent ball handling and defense ensued by both sides until a line break by the Jesuit Outside Center on the last play of the match produced a try and conversion for the final score.
Following the match, both Jesuit institutions met at midfield to exchange mutual respect for what each team acknowledged was the finest opponent that they had respectively faced all season. Per tradition, the team captains spoke and the runners up recognized Cima as the Man of the Match for the backs while senior captain and Flanker/8-Man Charlie DePont garnered the same honor for the forwards.
The fans who had witnessed the epic battle between these same schools in the previous year's final agreed that this year's rematch had raised the bar even higher. Both Gonzaga Head Coach Peter Baggetta and his Jesuit counterpart John Shorey acknowledged that each program had set the standard by which the other sought to be measured and thus raised the overall level of both programs and high school rugby as a whole. The match was a hard fought, clean and well-played affair worthy of a national championship and one which the history making Boys of Eye Street will long celebrate and remember. Both teams and programs deserve great praise for the way they not only play the game on the pitch but how they conduct themselves off of it.
For now, the No. 1 ranked Eagles have finally conquered the summit and hope that this National Championship, which they captured not only for themselves but for all of those who had blazed the trail before them, will be the first of many for their storied program under the guidance for the past 16 years of Director of Rugby and Gonzaga Athletic Hall of Fame member Lee Kelly, whose leadership and vision are largely responsible for its ongoing success.