There would be no Cinderella story. Princeton men’s rugby crashed out of the Nationals with back-to-back defeats to West Virginia University and Brown. Although the boys played fearlessly and put in two great performances, they were no match for a much stronger WVU and disappointingly lost to Brown twice in three weeks. Regardless of the disappointing results, the Princeton side put in its best season in 14 years by achieving a berth to Nationals, itself an impressive feat.
Such an opportunity was something that the players felt blessed to have, junior back Nick Martin said: “Being able to compete on the national stage represented a great opportunity for our team. In particular, our younger players learned a lot from playing at this level. Our team will grow both from facing such stiff competition and from participating in such a legitimate tournament. Our alumni support also helped drive home how important this tournament was. Richard [Lopacki], our coach, received letters of encouragement from former players, and these alumni gave us a lot of financial support as well. Our success means a lot to them, so we try that much harder not to let them down.”
The players were upbeat and confident when they travelled to Penn State to face heavy favorites West Virginia in the Sweet 16 of the National Championships, hoping to gain an upset against the school that produced famous athletes such as Jerry West. However, the players could not match the intensity or experience of the West Virginia players, who flew out of the blocks at a torrid pace. The Princeton players seemed to be awestruck by the occasion, having never played at such a high level before, and West Virginia took advantage of the defensive errors and inexperience of the Princeton side. The West Virginia players struck quickly and decisively, racing out to a comfortable, and seemingly insurmountable, 25-3 lead at halftime.
However, Princeton quickly bounced back in the second half and put in an extremely convincing second-half performance, one the players should be proud of. They outplayed WVU throughout the second half, although some of it could be attributed to the complacency of the West Virginia players as they held a comfortable lead. However, the Princeton players hit back with some great interplay and intelligent movement, which left the West Virginia defense dumbfounded on occasion. The Tigers were particularly good on their lineouts and scrums, where they held their own against a very big West Virginia pack.
Sophomore forward Ali Alami, known to teammates and fans by the moniker “the Big Salami,” was the first to score in the second half for Princeton. Sporting a radical reverse mohawk, he was once again one of the more dynamic players on the side. Alami took advantage of some lackluster defending by the opposition when he spotted the West Virginia players falling asleep on their goal-line after a penalty. Taking this opportunity, he took a quick tap before diving in for the team’s first try of the day. Martin, who put in another great shift after his wonderful Ivy League Championships performance, converted the try with great ease.
Mixed in between a couple of West Virginia tries, sophomore forward Forrest Hull was determined to get involved in the action as well. The team’s number 8 scored two gutsy tries as he punished the West Virginia defense for its soft tackling. Neither of the tries scored was an offensive master class, but they showed the team’s grit and determination. Both were then converted once again by Martin. A convincing second-half performance saw the Tigers outplay and outwork WVU, and the players were rewarded with three tries. Although the Tigers played a disappointing first half, they have been encouraged by their second half performance. However, they left it a little too late, falling out of the Sweet 16 by a score of 41-24.
Alami attributed the first-half performance to the team’s lack of confidence, saying, “We probably overestimated our opponents, which explains why we started on the back foot. However, we kept at our game and never stopped putting in the effort, which culminated in two great tries in the last five minutes.”
West Virginia fans clearly did not take victory graciously; it was soon spotted that there was a tweet floating online claiming: “WVU beats lowly Princeton at rugby, 41-24 … Stick to sports you know Ivy Leaguers, like polo or dressage or investment banking.”
Martin did not think too much of this tweet. “West Virginia showed a lot of class when we faced them on Saturday. That twitter account is not affiliated with the university. In fact, the official twitter acount made no mention of the rugby team’s performance this weekend, so I do not hold it against the rugby team or the school. This isn’t the first time Princeton students have been mocked as elitists, and it won’t be the last, so I don’t think it deserves much attention at all,” he said. Junior back Will Hicks took more offense at the tweet, claiming, “I won’t dignify that tweet with a response. There is no place in rugby for something that classless. It goes against the collegiality of the sport that makes rugby unique.”
The Tigers were determined to bounce back in their game against Brown on Sunday, after Brown was trounced by San Diego 55-28. The players wanted to exact revenge on Brown after the narrow defeat at the Ivy League Championships. However, despite pushing hard, Brown proved to be a tough opponent once again, just edging the Tigers by three points; the Tigers lost 27-24. Martin later commented on the game, saying, “Brown was a much more even matchup. We led 15-5 with two minutes left in the first half and let them score two quick tries. They had a dangerous offense which we held in check for much of the day, but that brief stretch really turned the momentum of the game before halftime. Again, we didn’t stop fighting and scored a try on the final play of the game.”
The team also provided Princeton fans with a live stream coupled with knowledgeable commentary and fantastic insight by injured sophomore back Michael Rice. The commentary certainly benefited the viewers, as the seasoned player showed off his deep knowledge of the game, allowing many fans to understand what was happening on the pitch.
A pair of defeats to Brown certainly made for a disappointing end to the season, but the players themselves were not too crestfallen, knowing that they had exceeded expectations by qualifying for the Sweet 16 this year, a feat they hope to achieve next year as well. Martin added, “It’s our goal to make it back to the tournament next year, and we think that we can absolutely do it.”
Martin has this confidence thanks in no small part to the team’s youth, saying: “Our team is very young. If we can get stronger and faster over the summer, then we will be in a fantastic position come next fall. We definitely saw against WVU that we could use some more work in the weight room. As for experience, we have so many freshmen and sophomores who are still learning the nuances of the game. As we continue to play, they’ll continue to learn and get even better.”