A crushing defeat in the final against Brown last weekend meant the men’s rugby team had just missed out on an opportunity to win the Ivy League Championships. The team had won its two previous games, but it could not make it three consecutive victories to claim the title. Although the loss in the final was disheartening, the players can take great pride in their performances, and the team must be considered a favorite to remain a fixture this season, as well as in next year’s Ivy League Championships.
The tournament started out favorably for the boys in black when quarterfinals opponent Penn was nowhere to be found. It would have been a tough matchup for the team, having won one and lost one to Penn this season. However, by 10:30 a.m., half an hour after the game was supposed to start, the referee decided that enough was enough, and disqualified Penn.
The next game proved to be a much sterner test: the opponent, Yale, at least bothered to show up to the game. Yale had previously upset No. 1 Dartmouth 27-24 in the quarterfinals, mainly thanks to some late game heroics from fly-half Joe Murdy. Murdy was expected to be a handful for the Tigers’ defense, especially faced against junior Will Hicks. However, Hicks had a fantastic performance, keeping Murdy in check for most of the game, and did an admirable job of replacing the star fly-half, sophomore Michael Rice. Hicks has become a very good fly-half in his own right, especially in the kicking department.
Although the team was well rested, Yale picked up the pace early and had momentum on its side. However, Yale could not capitalize on its possession and was quickly made to pay through some fantastic play by junior fullback Nick Martin. Having received a pass from just outside the 22, Martin charged at the Yale defense before a fake pass to freshman winger Furman Haynes fooled everyone, allowing Martin to easily score. The fullback then himself converted the try.
However, Murdy quickly pulled back three points for Yale with a penalty, and things got even worse for Princeton. Starting sophomore scrum-half Alex Dominguez was badly injured, breaking his hand. This forced a tactical shift from the Tigers, but the team still managed to score a try just before the break after some quick thinking and agile movement by freshman Max Weber. Princeton comfortably went into the half with a 12-3 lead.
Princeton played out the rest of the game with a great team performance and managed to score another try, once again thanks to the heroics of Martin. Martin did not score the try himself but placed it on a platter for junior Matt Garvey with a beautiful offload. It was a truly vintage performance from Martin.
Coming into Sunday’s final, Coach Richard Lopacki praised the team for its efforts against Yale, saying, “I thought the guys showed great determination and courage yesterday. I was very proud of them.” However, when asked about the upcoming final, Coach Lopacki was wary, stating: “Today will be a big challenge for us. It is through games like this that the team will mature. I am very excited for the game. Brown is a tough opponent; they are experienced, they have nine seniors. We only have one.” Brown had an impressive tournament as well, easily dispatching Cornell 29-12 and Harvard 26-15 in the previous rounds.
Brown indeed proved to be a very tough opponent, and its experience definitely showed. The Brown Bears were the quickest out of the block and almost converted this pressure into points, but some stout defending by Princeton managed to prevent Brown from scoring. However, Brown continued to dominate the first half, quickly scoring eight points, before a try by freshman Jack Jankowski at the stroke of halftime pulled the score to 8-7.
The players retreated to the locker room excited with their try, and the fans were hoping for an inspired team talk by the coaches. Fired up from this, the players played some excellent rugby after the break and were quickly rewarded with a try from junior Will Hicks, which was converted to put the team up 14-8.
However, it was at this stage that Brown’s experience started to show. The team was not scared when it fell behind, and instead the players calmly probed the defense until they saw an opening, which they ruthlessly attacked. This quickly led to two tries in just five minutes, and Princeton’s lead quickly evaporated, down 20-14.
This was the moment that the players’ frustrations started to boil over, and with just four minutes remaining in the game, Princeton was playing 15 v. 13, after both sophomores Ali Alami and Joe Graen received yellow cards for back-talking to the referee. Brown took full benefit of its numerical advantage, scoring on the final play of the game to claim the Ivy Championships with a 27-14 victory.
Despite the disappointing end to the tournament and what appeared like a lost chance at qualifying for the national tournament, the team received word Monday afternoon that it has been given an at-large bid to the USA D-1AA National Championships. The bid was awarded to the Tigers based on their strong performance over the opening weeks of the spring, and marks an extraordinary feat for Princeton rugby, which has not qualified for the national tournament since 2000.
“I couldn’t be happier for this young squad to get a rare chance to represent Princeton Rugby on a national stage,” Hicks said. “Being invited to the D-1AA Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000 is a testament to the hard work our guys have put in over the last few weeks, and I’m excited to see how far we will go.”
The Tigers will travel to Penn State in two weeks to take on West Virginia in the first round of the tournament, but has business to attend to this weekend when Yale returns to Princeton for a chance to capture the Koranda Cup. Kickoff is scheduled for Saturday afternoon at Rickerson Field in West Windsor, N.J.