Photo: Senior Jess Rosenstein raise the state championship trophy.
Belmont High Girls’ Rugby Head Coach Kate McCabe huddled with her team just before the beginning of the second half of the state championship finals against Lincoln Sudbury Regional. Trailing 10-8, Belmont had been outplayed by the Warriors for long stretches of the match held at Newton South High School.
“Right now Lincoln Sudbury wants this game,” she told the team, looking at each player as she spoke. “I want you to want this game more. I want you to want to win this game,” said McCabe, imploring her squad to win each encounter on the field both as individuals and as a team. Now’s the time, she told them, to have the desire to win a state title.
And the Marauders responded with a dominating hard-fought second half punctuated with a pair of inspired trys by junior flyhalf Gabriella “Gabby” Viale – adding to her first-half strike – to defeat Lincoln-Sudbury, 20-10, to repeat as MIAA Division 1 state girls’ rugby champions.
“I can’t say enough about this team. They rose to the occasion when [the game] was on the line,” said McCabe after celebrating with her team with the state tournament trophy.
“I can’t describe it,” said team captain senior scrumhalf Jess Rosenstein who accepted the state championship trophy with fellow senior center Kiera Booth. “It’s great,” she said, pointing out the victory was due to a true team effort. “It’s all our[s] [championship].”
Top seed Belmont (8-0) won the two regular-season games against second-ranked Lincoln Sudbury (5-3) by five (17-12) and two points (14-12) in physical contests and the championship match played in sporadic sprinkles under overcast skies was just as rough and tumble as the previous matches. And it was the Warriors that took the game to the Marauders, keeping control of the ball while threatening to break runs from the back.
When Belmont did have the ball, it was losing possession in the ruck – when a player must release the ball after being tackled – as the Warriors moved the Marauders off the ball.
“That was a sticking point which we had worked on so we knew that was going to happen,” said McCabe. “LS really pressured us on our first pass from the ruck and scrum and that took away our options.”
Lincoln Sudbury struck first when junior center Shelley Zuckerman romped around Belmont’s right end to score the first of her two tries in the half to give the Warriors a 5-0 lead.
Belmont responded on a flukish play as the Marauders’ drove the ball within 10 meters to the goal when a quick stoppage had both teams suddenly stop play. The only player to realize that the ball was free was Viale to picked it up and ran to try. The conversion attempt from an acute angle by junior lock Johanna Matulonis was missed to leave the game level at 5-5.
“I had these opportunities. I saw it and I had to go,” said Viale who has scored in consecutive championship games.
Belmont took a lead on Matunlonis’ penalty kick from nearly 22 meters with the wind to her back. That lead was shortlived as Zuckerman scored her second from 20 meters out to give the Warriors a 10-8 lead into the half.
The Warriors came out of the half on fire as it quickly drove the ball to the Belmont 10 meters and then nearly scored on a solo run after a Marauder defensive kick, but for a last-gasp stop by junior fullback Clare Martin.
“Clare Martin was making amazing tackles all game, some were try-saving tackles,” said McCabe.
But once it weathered the assault, Belmont put its stamp on the game, retaining control and drove to the Warrior’s try line. Belmont came close to scoring, once losing the ruck within 5 meters to the line and once crossing the try line but did not touch the ball to the ground. The Marauders kept control in the Warriors’ end despite junior lock Sam Dignan being sent for 10 minutes to the “sin bin” with a yellow card. Both teams would soon be playing 14 aside when a Warrior was sent off with her own yellow.
The constant pressure Belmont placed on Lincoln Sudbury by running straight at its front line by junior 8-man Grace Christensen, Matulonis and sophomore prop Madeline Mulken finally gave Belmont open space along the flanks and Viale capitalized by taking a final pass down the right side to outpace the Warrior defenders to sweep 20 meters into try midway in the half. Matulonis’s successful conversion gave Belmont a 15-10 lead.
The remainder of the half saw a tiring Warrior team unable to break Belmont’s defense, only passing the half line once in the final 18 minutes. Belmont once again drove into the offensive zone, keeping possession for a majority of the last minutes. After a penalty on the Warriors 25 meters from the try line, Viale quickly restarted play with a “tap-and-go” and ran by the Lincoln Sudbury defenders for her final try giving Belmont an insurmountable 20-10 margin with less than four minutes to play.
“I couldn’t have done it without the work of my teammates,” said Viale.
“Lincoln Sudbury was phenomenal today. At times we lost our focus that potentially could have changed the entire game,” said McCabe. “But at halftime, I asked them to make a difference in the game. It was that desire, the willingness to own how each of them played which made the difference.”