By: Josh Brannock, Sports Editor
With its back against the wall and its season on the line, the UNF rugby team was on the brink of leaving Norfolk, Va., empty-handed March 25 and ending an historic season painfully short, but the Deadbirds saw their season was far from over.
The team headed into halftime in the East Regional finals down 5-10 to the College of William and Mary. After going 7-0 in the regular season, dominating in the South Championships and defeating Rowan University 35-7 the day before, the team knew the final 40 minutes of the match would determine the outcome of the season.
“We all realized that during the first half, we got away from our game plan,” Trace Horevitz said. “[We knew] that if we went back to playing our game, we would be able to come back.”
After the whistle blew for the second half, UNF came out with a new swagger. UNF managed to score 12 unanswered points to take a commanding 17-10 lead in the second half. In what seemed like hours, the team gave up five points to W&M, making it a 17-15 match. In the waning moments, UNF was able to finish strong and complete the comeback, continuing its improbable run at a National Championship.
“I was excited to know that for the first time in UNF rugby history we would compete on a national level,” Steven ‘Meaty’ Hill said after the game. “We have put our blood, sweat and soul into our program…this is the reason you play sports, a shot at a national championship.”
In its first year as a recognized Division III team, the Deadbirds weren’t expected to make a run at national glory. The team started off its year strong. It finished the preseason undefeated, but the year would take a quick downward turn after that.
The team began its fall season off on the wrong foot and continued to slip. With a close loss to the University of Miami and a blowout loss to the University of Florida, the Deadbirds looked as though they were heading into rough waters with no preparation.
The team didn’t allow the disappointing fall season to deter it from its hopes of winning a national championship. Horevitz saw the potential the team had even though it was going through struggles.
“We had a lot of injuries at key positions during the fall,” Horevitz said. “Once I saw the team back and fully recovered, I knew we had a chance to make a run in the playoffs.”
In the spring season, the team dominated all teams in its path, outscoring its opponents 275-56 in the seven game regular season. The closest match for the Deadbirds came in the season finale against Eckerd College, a 24-22 nail biter.
Eckerd would get its chance at revenge against UNF in the finals at the South Championships March 11. After winning the semi-final match versus Spring Hill College 24-0, the teams met again. For the third time this year, the Deadbirds managed to beat the Tritons 17-0.
With the win, the team headed to Norfolk, and after winning the East Regionals, it is now a month away from its final chance at a championship.
“The whole season we’ve used three goals for each game: rucking, continuity and communication. As long as we achieve these in the game, we’ll always be in a position to win,” Horevitz said.
The team will head to Glendale, Co., April 28-29. The team is just two wins away from becoming the first national champion at UNF in any division since the men’s golf team won the NAIA national championship in 1993 and the women’s team won in the 1993-94 season.
Email Josh Brannock at firstname.lastname@example.org.