The elation that followed the Montauk Rugby Club’s double-overtime victory in the opening round of USA Rugby’s National Division II Championship on Saturday flared out 24 hours later as the Sharks fell, 27-17, to Rocky Gorge of Maryland, the top seeded team from the Mid-Atlantic region.
The loss left Montauk, which was seeded second out of the Northeast, one win short of a trip to Glendale, Colorado, and next month’s National Final Four, an honor now bestowed on Rocky Gorge and Wisconsin, the other club to advance from the Sweet 16 round held in Cheswick, Pennsylvania, over the weekend.
The Sharks had knocked off top-seeded Naples on Saturday, winning 26-21 on Matt Brierley’s try in sudden death overtime, to advance to the round of eight. On Sunday, Montauk led Rocky Gorge by five points at halftime, but the Sharks fell flat in the second half.
“We had that extra 20 minutes of rugby yesterday, and the gas was starting to run low at the end of the first half,” Montauk captain and fly half Gordon Trotter said on Sunday. “I’m so proud of the boys and the way they played.”
Saturday’s win was an upset because Naples came to the tournament, held just outside Pittsburgh, as the top-seeded team from the south region. Montauk struck first off a try by Steve Turza but soon fell behind 18-5 going into halftime. The Sharks changed their attack midway through the second half, and tries by Trotter and Jim Abran, along with a penalty kick from Teddy Grabowski, tied the score at 18-18 and sent the game into overtime.
There the teams exchanged penalty conversions and the first overtime ended with a 21-21 tie. The second overtime is sudden death, with the first team to score declared the winner. After stealing a Naples lineout Montauk’s forward pack advanced the ball enough for Brierley to sneak in for the winning try.
“The boys played sensationally,” Trotter said Saturday afternoon. “It was probably the best we’ve played all year.”
It was Trotter, the club’s most experienced player, who had a chance to win the game at the end of the first overtime, crossing the try line near the sideline. Thinking Montauk needed a try and the ensuing conversion kick to win, he rushed toward the center of the field to place the ball, but had it knocked from his hands before he could score. Just a try would have won the game. “The old fellow had a senior moment,” Trotter said.
Trotter, Abran and Nick Finazzo scored tries in the first half for Montauk on Sunday, but despite having several solid chances, the Sharks were shut out in the second half while Rocky Gorge, which went undefeated in both its fall and spring seasons, turned up the level of play.
“They were stealing a lot of our balls, and when we went to ruck, we couldn’t get the ball out” to the backline, Trotter said.
Like Rocky Gorge, Montauk also went undefeated in the fall season after a host of newcomers with serious athletic ability joined Trotter and the club’s other veterans to form a perfect mix of experience and youthful exuberance.
With the Final Four now scratched from the schedule, Montauk will play in the New Jersey Cup tournament this weekend before resuming competitive play in the fall. If the club’s younger players continue to learn the game and grow from their experience this season, Trotter said the dream of reaching the Final Four could become a reality next year.
“That’s the thing I told them after the game. They’re all down about it at the moment but having been in this game for over 25 years, I told them ‘You got all the way to the top 8 in the country in your first year’,” Trotter said. “They have to stay together as a team and as a unit, but I couldn’t be prouder of a local group of guys.”
When asked if he would be back for another season, the team’s veteran fly half and on- and off-the-field leader, also hinted at a comeback.
“I told the boys after the game, if they’re lucky they’ll get back here again,” Trotter said, referring to the national tournament. “And if they’re unlucky they might get me back for one more run too.”