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Fresno State: The Comeback That Mattered Most

  • 05 May 2019

Fresno State has won the USA Rugby DII College Spring Championship, defeating Salisbury University 25-19 in a tense final in Matthews, N.C. There were two lead changes and two weather delays, and another two minutes could have shifted the scoreline in another direction.

RELATED: Full playoff brackets / Fresno State Preview / Salisbury Preview

Fresno State advanced to the spring final after a 40-point semifinal win over 2018 champion Tulane, while Salisbury eliminated Eckerd College 29-20 on Friday (read more). Both teams were competing in their first-ever DII spring championship final but experienced very different routes to the title bout. Aside from the differences in competition make-up, Salisbury has dominated the competition preceding the trip to Matthews, N.C., while Fresno State had to rely on several second-half comebacks to advance.

Salisbury drove the opening kickoff all the way to the Fresno State try line, and the Bulldogs panicked. A couple of lateral passes later, a knock-on set up the first of two five-meter scrums for the Sea Gulls. But Fresno has the better scrum and on several occasions, it disrupted what were very good attacking opportunities for Salisbury.

Fresno State figured out how to start quickly, in hopes of avoiding the need for a rally. Scrumhalf Raquel Macias stole the ball out of the set piece and play moved to the 22. Inside center Averi Peterson, picking up where she left off yesterday, motored to the 50 and desperate defense went high in the tackle for the penalty. When play resumed, Fresno settled into its pattern and Peterson did a wonderful job of working the defense and timing the finishing pass to Meaghan Gallagher. The wing cut back across out-stretched hands for her fourth try of the tournament. Flyhalf Regan Garner slotted the conversion for the 7-0 lead after six minutes.

Approximately a minute later, outside center Laura Seeger-Ellison took the ball from Fresno’s end and burned the defense for a quick try, 12-0. It felt like the game was continually building in the Californians’ favor, especially as a second high-tackle penalty on Peterson followed and Macias stole another scrum ball. But then Salisbury started linking opportunities together and Fresno wavered.

Haley Sheldon moved up from fullback to outside center and exerted good pressure on both sides of the ball. She drew a high-tackle penalty during a break, and although the subsequent kick didn’t make touch, Fresno responded will an ill-advised, ill executed pop kick deep in its end. Salisbury was driven into touch near the five meter and Fresno inexplicably attempted a quick lineout. But no one was ready and turnover followed.

The Bulldogs nearly got out of trouble when again its scrum shoved Salisbury off its ball and No. 8 Haley Gee knocked on the attempted pickup, but the subsequent set piece saw wing Chetna Kumar-Naicker bundled into touch. That lineout set the platform for some forward punches at the line, and inside center Kirby Given, who plays with the pack during these campaigns, scored. Sheldon converted, 12-7.

Salisbury played with some momentum and Fresno State sat back on defense, allowing the Sea Gulls’ big, strong runners to gain ground. Play was getting chippy, and then a second weather hit. The teams retired to the locker rooms to regroup and returned approximately an hour later.

There were about 10 minutes left in the half when Fresno State restarted play with a scrum in Salisbury’s end. Hooker Brianna Shaffer was yellow-carded for a high tackle on Kumar-Naicker, who was angling toward the corner of the try zone. Inside Salisbury’s 10 meter, both teams got opportunities to either score or relieve pressure but the slippery conditions saw numerous knock-ons.

The Sea Gulls were ready for a comeback. Ballcarriers ran tougher lines off the breakdown and Fresno State’s launch lost its pop and struggled to take down runners with a single tackler. Once inside the 22, Salisbury rededicated itself to the forward pick-and-go, and held onto possession long enough for a Maggie Moore dive-over, 17-12 after four minutes.

The next 20 minutes favored Salisbury, and Fresno killed itself with unforced knock-ons. Conditions were slippery but the amount of dropped balls almost looked like a mental block. Time spent on defense ticked ever upward and a high-tackle penalty at minute 53 saw Salisbury flyhalf Elisa River tap quickly through the mark for the try. Sheldon’s conversion fellow over for the first lead change of the match, 19-17 to Salisbury.

The Sea Gulls had also adjusted to the Fresno State back line and was able to neutralize it for the most part. Again, the Bulldogs hurt itself with knock-ons, and although that shifted the work load to the forwards, the Fresno State scrum was up for it. The pack was able to either shove Salisbury backward and cause trouble at the back of the scrum or steal it. And that helped.

As the game approached the final 15 minutes of regulation, one could see the mental stress materialize – an impatient lurch past the offsides line, an unawareness of touch, a 50/50 pass. And any one of those opportunities could have shifted the game one way or another. The one that ended up counting occurred when the Fresno State forwards entered attacking territory and the defense left the weakside channel unguarded. Hooker Violet Lopez hit it at pace, and although a knock-on in the tackle followed, the play was called back for a high-tackle penalty. The site was in Garner’s range, and the flyhalf sent the three-pointer just inside the left post, 20-19.

There were still 10 minutes to play and they were tense. Salisbury wing Marla McNeil, an important physical presence along the sideline, was sent off for the remainder of the game with a high-tackle yellow. Immediately afterward, Kumar-Naicker took the corner and was just stopped short by cover defense. The forwards consolidated power in its pick-and-go. The penultimate dive-over attempt saw Salisbury reorganize slowly, and No. 8 Megan Oleski speared through the gap for the final try, 25-19.

Garner’s conversion fell short and the final whistle followed. The pitch immediately transformed into heartbreak and elation.

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