On a deceptively sunny Saturday morning (it was real Cold), the Amherst squad formed up in the tennis court lots to embark on the one-and-a-half hour drive to Willimantic to face up against the undefeated ECSU Warriors, putting their own 18 game winning streak on the line. The new Head Coach, Kent Newcomb, had been running the Lord Jeffs into the ground the past week in preparation for what he knew would be the tightest match of the regular season. Through mud and blood the Jeffs had slogged through their drills, and after a rehabilitating team dinner and breakfast were well-prepped for the challenge.
Before departing in four personal vehicles and a loaned Amherst van, barrel-chested forwards captain Joe Moffitt exhorted each player to “have no conversations during the ride with anybody other than yourself. Get yourselves ready. Visualize three things you want to accomplish on the field today.” Newcomer and King of the Rookies Will Brothers echoed the sentiment with a loud “Whoop!” and a click of his Texas cowboy heels, and the team was off.
Hours passed without incident.
The cars arrived at the field-side lot over the course of twenty minutes, to see the fully-assembled Warriors team already filling their half of the field. Perhaps not astonishing given the size of their school, they counted a full 50 players dressed in the uniforms of their various sides. This contrasted with the smaller Amherst contingent of 22. Having overestimated the time to arrival, the Jeffs were left with a full two hours before kick-off. The team began to increase its focus and players loosened their muscles, passing, kicking, and stretching on the field before the warm-up began in earnest. From there, Coach Newcomb ushered the team to an adjacent field to keep the rest of warm-ups hidden from ECSU’s view. The backs ran lines and worked on kicking, while the forwards honed their 7 man, 4 man, and 2 man line-outs and reviewed the super-secret, never-failing “Juggernaut” play. As gametime approached, Coach Newcomb stood in the center of the bound-up team, delivering a speech “like he used to tell in his playing days,” reminding the boys of their identity as rugby players, their superior skill, and their tenacity. The team was truly jazzed and ready to take down ECSU, especially after some rousing primal exclamations from bearded backs captain Nick Parada after the coin toss.
Moffitt returned the opening kick-off with a five yard dash into the enormous ECSU lock #5, a 6’5” 250 lb. DI football transfer. The team soon found out that although #5 was a quick-footed charger, his rugby skills were questionable, and we were able to neutralize him for the rest of the game with solid rucking and tackling from rookie prop Kody Weaver and flanker Kir Chowdhury. The flow of the first half soon developed to a rhythm of running and rucking, with the backs mixing in a slew of kicks to ECSU’s shoddy fullback and wings. Despite the mediocre ball-handling skills of ECSU they displayed a remarkable strength in their rucking, scrumming, and line-outs, engaging Amherst’s forward pack in a pitched battle for control of the ball. Through the best efforts of both teams, neither could keep possession for more than a few carries, the ball bouncing between teams for the full forty minutes without a try. Amherst was able to cash in on two penalty kicks courtesy of resident stud Nick Parada, but no vulnerable penalties were conceded by Amherst, holding ECSU scoreless in the first half.
Notable efforts during those first forty minutes included the selfless sacrifice of starting hooker Rob Cross, who stormed a hopeless three-man ruck to win possession back for his team at the cost of the left side of his face. He was helped field to be replaced by the uppity Mark Roh. More injuries were sustained by freshman lock Jason “J Kuan” “Jay Z” “Public Urination” Kuan with a wayward ‘bow from teammate Jordan Pinsky “right in the nose” and the unrelenting digging of Joe Moffitt’s knuckles in the midst of the very contested scrums. To finish up the half, Amherst served up a demoralizing goal line stand to the pressing Warriors, handing them their first scoreless half of the season.
The second half was opened with a cross-field kick to ECSU’s outside center, who was able to scream up the sideline and advance an awakening 50 yards before he was brought down by a host of embarrassed Jeffs. The play in the second half was characterized by constant kicks out of hand, thoroughly tiring both teams in the chases. ECSU, taking advantage of their great depth, began to substitute many of their forward players. This, while giving Andrew Mowry the advantage in the lineouts and the whole pack the dominance in the scrums, provided the Warriors with sets of fresh legs that Amherst couldn’t match. The game began to devolve into a contest between beleaguered skill and more amateur but energized play.
The mood on the field, however, took a sudden turn at the 55th minute, when rookie fly half Sam Seham scooped an errant ECSU pass from the turf and sprinted 60 yards past the screaming Connecticut fans to earn his first try (and the honor of a Zulu). The Warriors, with their perfect season hanging in the balance, began to live up to their name: tempers on the field escalated to a point not usually seen away from the Williams game, and fists began to fly at the bottom of rucks and in the depths of the mauls. Micah Rotich, unsuspecting at the front of a ruck after the whistle had been blown, was blindsided by ECSU #19, a prop with 150 lbs on Micah’s Kenyan frame. Several players on each side immediately ran to clear the scene: play stopped for several minutes as the referee considered the best way to proceed after this obvious infraction and the concurrent appearance of blood on ECSU #13’s forehead. Unsatisfactorily, no penalties were awarded.
A bevy of more such incidents followed, including the tackling of full back Nick Bruce into the sideline benches, and the sidelining play of Joe Moffitt, who brushed off a would-be tackler with a strong knee to the head. Amid this confusion and ugly temperament, the Warriors snuck a ball through Amherst’s line, scoring an evening try with easy conversion to bring the score to 13-7 Amherst. Excitement on the field was peaking to an absolute maximum, only tempered by the both teams’ fatigue due to 70 minutes of all-out exertion.
After five minutes of frustrating back and forth between the backs lines, the Warriors snaked another long return through to the Amherst 22. The unending supply of substitutes onto ECSU’s team strung together a hard-hitting sequence of crashes and pick-and-goes, culminating in a gut-wrenching and ill-earned try to bring the score to 13-12, Amherst, with only two minutes to play. The Warriors’ kicker lined up for an easy 20 meter conversion from the center of the posts. A short conversation came up between the referee and Amherst’s players about the regulations concerning the charge down: the conclusion that the Jeffs lined up shoulder to shoulder underneath the posts ready to scare ECSU’s poor kicker with an intimidating advance. Upon the kicker’s first forward motion, the Jeffs charged. Miraculously, the kicker completely shanked what may have been the easiest kick of his career, sending the ball flubbing into freshman Jeff Mark Hawkins. Exuberance exploded from the sidelines. But then: a whistle.
“What?” the confused Amherst team looked around at themselves.
“Re-kick! Amherst touching the posts!”
Apparently, an Amherst player had been brushing the post with a shoulder before he charged, which endangered the concentration of the kicker. (Let alone that he must have been aiming at the corner flag.) Shocked at what seemed a display of outright manipulation by the referee, Amherst lined back up on the try line while the relieved ECSU kicker set back up for his kick. Amherst was hoping for a repeat performance, and ECSU, for a successful conversion. The hopes of his team buoyed the kicker to competency, though, putting the Warriors into the lead at 14-13.
Amherst fought with a passion for the few remaining minutes, desperate for a chance at kicking to salvage the game. Alas, it was not to be: the Warriors defense stood strong until the final whistle.
14-13 victory for East Connecticut State. We’ll see them again in the play-offs to avenge the loss of our three season winning streak.