Valdosta Daily Times

Local Sports

June 29, 2014

Two wins from glory

Valdosta State Rugby clinches semifinal berth in 7s national tournament

VALDOSTA — In a city with a rich sports tradition the Valdosta State Club Rugby team badly wants to make a name for itself in TitleTown — on Saturday morning in Aston, Penn., the Blazers' burning desire was on display. VSU cruised to a 3-0 record in pool play of the National Small College Rugby 7s National Tournament with a combined score of 85-17 to secure a spot in today's semifinals.

President of the Valdosta State Club Rugby team Danny Lanning attributed the team's play to the work the Blazers put in leading up to Saturday.

"The biggest key was the amount of time we put in on and off the field," said Lanning in a phone interview. "This past week we ran two-a-days all week. We worked on conditioning and we worked on our skills leading up to coming up here.

"Even when everyone was at home they were always conditioning, always practicing, watching film, and it just came together as a team today. It was really great play by everybody."

The team departed Thursday afternoon and traveled more than 850 miles and 13 hours on a luxury coach bus provided by Valdosta State to reach the tournament, and after the long trek the Blazers made sure to make the most out of their journey.

VSU was placed into Pool A before the tournament along with the University of Richmond (Va.), Sonoma State University (Calif.), and Susquehanna State University (Penn.), but the Blazers had little trouble rising to the top of the pool standings.

It became clear early on that the Valdosta State Club Rugby team was a step above its Pool A competition as the Blazers ran roughshod over the opposition from Game 1.

Richmond was the first obstacle in VSU's path when the two teams squared off at 9:10 a.m. to open Pool A play. The Blazers ran out to a quick 12-0 lead in the first half behind tries from Scott Laffler and Jon-Reed Walker.

Trailing 12-0, Richmond struck first in the second half when a defender read VSU's formation and jumped a lazy pass to score with ease, but a missed conversion kept VSU's lead at 12-5.

The match never got closer though, as the Valdosta State Club Rugby team answered immediately off the kickoff when Austin Grant found Jonathan Hernandez with room to run before flipping it to Walker for his second try of the match. Zach Hildebrand capped off the scoring by putting a nice move on a defender to get the try and clench VSU's 26-5 victory against Richmond.

"At first when everyone was warming up it was a little tense and everyone was a little nervous, but getting that big win out of the way first you could see everybody having more fun, a little more relaxed and smiles on everybody's faces and everyone really having fun playing," said Lanning.

A match between fellow Pool A members Susquehanna and Sonoma State followed VSU's first match. Susquehanna pulled out a 15-14 win against Sonoma State with a long conversion attempt with time expiring, but the Pennsylvania-based squad's next match pitted them against the buzzsaw of VSU at 10:50 a.m.

If the Blazers won comfortably in Game 1, they won Game 2 almost effortlessly, carving up Susquehanna's defense to the tune of 40 points to push their tournament record to 2-0.

Despite the lopsided score, VSU faced its lone deficit of the day against Susquehanna, falling behind 7-5 near the end of the first half. But with a minute remaining before half time, Hildebrand broke through a few arm tackles to score a try to put the Blazers up 12-7.

Still, with seconds before half, the Valdosta State Club Rugby team was not satisfied with the slim lead. A penalty gave the Blazers one more chance to add another try despite zeroes on the game clock and Jon Murtaugh delivered, displaying some impressive open-field moves en route to a 19-7 halftime lead.

The second half of Game 2 began with a Blazer blitzkrieg as VSU scored three consecutive tries in quick succession to go up 40-7 before cruising to victory.

"We've always had a problem not really starting in full gear so that put us behind a little bit," said Murtaugh. "But once they scored that we really turned it on and from then on out we pretty much had the ball the whole time.

"We worked our offense, moved from side-to-side, made their defense overcommit, and looped it back out to Jon-Reed if they didn't put too much pressure on us. We pretty much dictated our play and asserted ourselves in that game and it showed."

Sonoma State and Richmond met in the next Pool A match with both teams needing a win to keep pace in the standings. Sonoma State touched the ball down as time expired for a 26-21 victory to push its record to 1-1, setting up a de facto Pool A championship game against VSU at 12:50 p.m.

The Valdosta State Club Rugby team's final contest of the afternoon had more drama than the Blazers' previous two matches, but not by much.

Laffler scored on the opening kick-off to give VSU a 7-0 lead, but Sonoma State responded quickly off a scrum near the goal line to close within two points.

But once again, with just a little time remaining before the half, VSU turned up the pressure. Walker, arguably the Pool A MVP, took a pass and raced down the side-lines, getting by a defender with a move in the open-field, and out ran the Sonoma State defenders to the goal for his sixth try of the day to put the Blazers up 14-5 at half.

"I felt that today I ran with support really well," said Walker. "A lot of my teammates were right there for support when I needed it and I was there for support when they needed it.

"I sized up a lot of their wings and I knew I was a lot faster than a lot of them. So I sized them up, kind of gave them a test of speed on the outside and I left myself enough room on the outside to maneuver and wheel out."

Hildebrand scored one more VSU try in the second half as the Blazers pulled out their third straight victory, 19-5 against Sonoma State, to clinch the No. 1 seed in today's semifinals.

Despite the perfect record, not everything went the Blazers' way Saturday. Just before halftime in Game 3, VSU's Jordan Cain suffered from a lower leg injury and had to be helped off the field.

Cain was taken to the hospital where it was discovered he fractured his tibia and fibula and dislocated his ankle.

The Valdosta State Club Rugby team will meet New England College in the semifinals at 9:40 a.m. today at PPL Park in Chester, Penn., with the winner set to meet the other semifinal winner for the championship match at 4 p.m.

A live feed of the games can be found on www.NSCRO.org.

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