GREENSBORO, N.C. – Life University prevailed in the second half of the D1A National Championship to edge out a dangerous St. Mary’s College side 16-14. Match MVP Joe Cowley accounted for 11 of those points with a try and two penalties.
The first half saw St. Mary’s jump out to a 14-3 lead with two trademark Gaels tries, using great running angles and beating defenders one on one. Gaels fullback Tim Maupin scored first, finishing off an excellent team try stepping defenders and putting down the gas pedal to score under the sticks.
Ten minutes later, outside center Mike Haley sliced up Life’s midfield defense to touch down for a five pointer. Garrett Brewer converted both tries.
Up 14-3 at the half, St. Mary’s looked extremely dangerous and were dominating the scrums. Then the rain came.
A few light drizzles in the first half gave way to a downpour in the second, a circumstance that very much played into Life’s favor. Having bested Arkansas State in similar conditions in the semifinal, they not only knew how to operate in slick conditions, their style of play is well-suited for them. St. Mary’s? Not so much.
As such, in the second half, Life started playing Life rugby. They kept it tight, pounced on opportunities and drove up St. Mary’s tackle count.
Cowley got his team going in the second half with his boot and his pace. He slotted a penalty and two minutes later got the ball on the right touchline, turned the corner on his defender, and won the foot race to the try line.
“Once I saw him turn his hips, there was no coming back. I knew I had to go for the corner,” the MVP recounted.
Big Life prop Drew Ohmann scored the go-ahead try nine minutes later after St. Mary’s defense conceded a try after several minutes of defending their goal line.
That would be the last score of the game. St. Mary’s had a few opportunities, but whether it was nerves or a slick ball, the passes just weren’t going to hand.
Frustration set in as well as St. Mary’s standout prop Nick Wallace was yellow carded for a dangerous tackle. That negated St. Mary’s set piece advantage and was compounded by the fact that Wallace’s propping partner Jordan Bouey was in and out of play with some concern for his shoulder, but he toughed it out, earning the deep respect of Life’s players and coaches.
“(Bouey) was hurt but kept going out there and trying to compete. He was an absolute warrior,” Life Head Coach Dan Payne said.
The Running Eagles kept the pressure on St. Mary’s and were able to eat a lot of clock in the last 10 minutes. St. Mary’s had one last shot with less than a minute on the clock when Life knocked the ball on five meters out from the Gaels’ line. But a St. Mary’s knock on ended the game and Life claimed their first ever D1A National Championship.
Life captain Colton Caraiga played his last game for Life and certainly made it count. He marshaled his troops well and ensured they kept their discipline in a game that featured some monster hits and intense physicality.
“It was a tremendous effort (from the forwards). I told them they had to own the trenches and the backs would do what we could to control the pace of the game. They stepped up when they really needed to in the second half,” Cariaga said.
MVP Cowley loved the defensive effort his side showed saying, “It was hard coming back from 3-14 at the half to win 16-14, not letting any tries in the second half was great. That’s what we thrive on.”
When Payne was asked what comes next for the program after winning two national championships (they won the first-ever USA Rugby College Sevens National Championship in 2011) in three years, he had Cowley and Cariaga sum it up.
Payne said, “These guys can answer that question. What do we try to do every Monday?”
Cariaga and Cowley replied, “Get better. Constant improvement.”
“It’s great because there is no end game. It’s constantly a challenge, especially at the college level because you’re graduating players and players are maturing and you’re asking new guys to step up every year. It’s part of the challenge, but it’s also what makes it such a phenomenal opportunity,” Payne said.
Tries: Cowley (47’), Ohmann (56’)
Penalties: Cowley (3’, 45’)
St. Mary’s 14
Tries: Maupin (20’), Haley (31’)
Conversions: Brewer (21’, 31’)