Game-saving tackle reverses Saint Mary’s National Championship fortunes

D1A Rugby: Game-saving tackle reverses Saint Mary’s National Championship fortunes
Photo Credit: Steve Zomberg

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – During a training session in December prior to Saint Mary’s 2016 season, the players were requested to drop into push-up position to begin an unknown amount of push-ups. When the request was met, no further action was made and the sweat-drenched players held their position. What followed was a misunderstanding between the coach and players as to who would provide the cadence for the push-ups, and the exercise eventually turned into a test of mental fortitude.

The 50 players began to moan and groan before falling to their knees and forearms in defeat. After 45 minutes of confusing agony, one player remained in push-up position – newly appointed captain Kevin O’Connor.

“He certainly passed the test,” said center Dylan Audsley of the man tasked with replacing two-year captain and All-American Cooper Maloney. “We all knew then that he was going to be a great captain and the right man for the job.”

O’Connor led from the front the entire 15s season, tackling everything in sight from the blindside flanker and No. 8 positions. Fortunately for Saint Mary’s, the senior had one more captain-esque moment left in him.

Clinging onto a 7-5 lead in the College 7s Cup Final against a supremely talented American International team, two-time All-American Christian Adams brushed off one defender before diving over the line for what appeared to be a game-winning try. Instead, it was a National Championship-winning play from O’Connor who clung to Adams’ back, preventing the 205-pound wing from touching the ball down.

“I knew he was a big, strong fellow, so I had to use every bit of strength I had to hold him up,” recalled O’Connor. “I told Dylan it was a sort of a miracle because he probably scores nine out of 10 times.”

Audsley admits he couldn’t tell which of his teammates prevented the score, but he wasn’t surprised when he discovered it was his roommate O’Connor.

“It was pretty unbelievable, but that’s what makes him a special player and a special captain.”

As much physical strength as it took to hold up the determined runner, O’Connor credits his former captain and an overall theme of the club for his highlight-worthy tackle.

“That’s the mentality here – never give up. I think about a guy like Cooper, he could’ve been playing with a few injuries, but would’ve done whatever it took to get the job done.”

It was by no means is a total shocker that Saint Mary’s went 6-0 and won the 2016 College 7s National Championship. The Gaels had reached at least the Cup Quarterfinals each of the event’s previous four tournaments, and advanced to the Cup Final in 2013. Still, after playing the most physically challenging 15s schedule in the country, and one that ended much later than the vast majority of the College 7s field, Saint Mary’s wasn’t in an advantageous position heading into the 24-team tournament.

Potentially furthering the Gaels’ lack of preparation was a mental letdown after the unsettling loss to Life University in the D1A National Championship. While it’s evident the team is still disturbed from letting its 15-0 lead slip away in an attempt to win a third consecutive title in 15s, it used the agonizing loss to spearhead its training efforts.

Led by sevens head coach Joey Reavey and assistant Kingsley McGowan, recent graduates and All-Americans at Saint Mary’s, the team drilled fitness when it wasn’t working basics. In an effort to do whatever it took to wash the loss to Life out of their mouths, the Gaels even went back to their pre-season conditioning regimen – including running hills and putting in two sessions a day.

“It was a lot easier coming off a loss because we had the extra motivation to train hard,” O’Connor said. “Last year our prep for Nationals wasn’t as challenging after winning the D1A Finals, and I think it showed in our Quarterfinal loss to Utah. There was different atmosphere this year and guys were more tuned-in. We looked at how we played in the Finals and wanted to correct that.”

Saint Mary’s was sharp from the very beginning of the three-day tournament. Even after losing California Conference’s Freshman of the Year Aaron Matthews to a torn ACL in their first match, the Gaels built a plus-83 point advantage in three pool victories to qualify them for the Cup Quarterfinals, where they defeated Notre Dame College. The loss of the quick-stepping Matthews made Holden Yungert’s return to the lineup even more crucial. The All-American scrum half saw his first live action at Nationals since breaking his hand in the beginning of March.

In the Semifinals, Saint Mary’s overcame a halftime deficit to beat an impressive Arizona State side that earned weekend wins over 2015 Finalists Davenport and Lindenwood, before the dramatic Cup Final triumph against AIC.

While O’Connor was the hero of the tournament for his try-saving play and Audsley deservingly won the Dave Sitton Memorial Trophy for his Most Valuable Player performance, the outstanding play of Mike McCarthy can’t go unmentioned. The All-Conference center led the team in tries during the tournament, and truly took over the team’s captaincy for its College 7s buildup, and throughout its run to the Cup Finals.

“He sees the game really well and it was a huge help to have an experienced mind like that to talk to,” O’Connor said.

Audsley and O’Connor are two of a handful of student-athletes returning to Saint Mary’s for a fifth season, but they couldn’t be more thrilled to send the graduating seniors off with a National Championship victory.

“Our seniors are really close and we all get along,” mentioned Audsley. It was fantastic to end in that manner for guys you’ve worked so hard with, and guys you have so much respect for.”

It has only been four days since the team returned home with a National Championship trophy in sevens, but the guys are already clamoring to reclaim the title they most covet – the D1A National Championship.

“We’re going to have a good team next year,” Audsley affirmed. “We’re hungry to get back to work, get better and win another National Championship.”