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RUGBY: Ave Maria University Wins its First State Championship

Papist Rugby Logo

Click: very important message from Papist Rugby Club.

submitted by John Audino

[Editor’s note: In support of this great effort of Catholic sportsmen, the Alex Klucik Memorial Fund is pleased to pledge $100 to the fundraising efforts of the Papist Rugby Club.]

Ave Maria University Papists - Florida College Rugby State Champions 2014

True to form and to their authentically Catholic fervor, the lads took a knee … witnesses to the glory of the day to offer that glory up to the God Who made them and to His most Holy Mother, the patroness of their alma mater.

On Saturday, March 8th, the Ave Maria University Papists Rugby team took to the road in hopes of finishing off a first ever undefeated season. With a storybook rematch against the University of North Florida standing between AMU and glory, the stage was set for a dramatic season finale.

A year ago the defending champion UNF Deadbirds had made the long haul from Jacksonville down to Ave Maria to spoil the young Catholic university’s hopes of claiming a first championship. In a match that was overshadowed by ill fortune and missed opportunities, the Papists made a heroic second half comeback only to fall 8 points short of the 2013 title.

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With that loss still fresh in the memory of the coaching staff and veteran players, the Ave Maria University squad ambitiously made the long journey up to Jacksonville to try to set things right and claim a first ever state title. The 2013 defeat against UNF now stood as the Papists only loss in their last 15 matches going back to the fall of 2012.

Arriving at the enormous campus of 16,000+ undergrad University of North Florida, the Papists were disappointed to discover a modest rugby pitch fitted with pitiful goalposts that needed to be placed at the back end of the try zone so that no one would get injured on them. Despite the sub-prime pitch conditions, fate would finally shine on the Catholic boys in blue and gold.

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The UNF Deadbirds have gained the well-earned reputation of being a very fierce and hard hitting squad with a firm grasp of the fundamentals of the rugby game. The AMU Papists have earned a reputation for sportsmanship, discipline, and an effective pro-style gameplan that utilizes speed and deception to cut through opposing defensive lines. Even prior to kickoff, the tension was palpable.

The Papists took to their pregame routine with the manner and character of an ancient ritual, whereas their opponents hawked and screamed like a barbarian horde at the gates of a Roman fort. Such imagery did not escape Ave Maria coach Jeremy Gay as he and coaches John Audino and Daniel Schiller warned their squad that they would have to retain their discipline and weather the storm of a heretofore unseen first 15 minutes of intensity that they assured them would not last. The Deadbirds did not disappoint in this regard.

Papist Rugby

The home team kicked off to start the match and the opening kick sailed into touch leaving Ave Maria University Senior captain, Chris Audino, the choice between a re-kick and a scrum on the 50 meter line. The Papists elected to contest a scrum to open the match and what followed was nothing short of shocking. As soon as the ball was put into the unique contest that is a rugby scrum, the Deadbird pack literally ran over the Papists.

While the Ave Maria scrum hadn’t lost a single one of their own put-ins all season, this opening contest created a lump in the stomachs of all who witnessed it. Having won the ball from that impressive display of strength, the home team then proceeded to march up the field and pin their visiting opponents deep in their own defensive zone. Within a few minutes the UNF ball carriers laid some hits on their Papist counterparts that resembled the impact of being hit by a motor vehicle.

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Despite their most valiant efforts, the Deadbirds proved too fierce in the opening stages for AMU. The home team opened up the scoring with a try to put them up 7-0. The Papists returned fire with a well worked team try at the other end to set the early scoreline at 7-5 in favor of the UNF Deadbirds.

The rest of the first half was characterized by penalties committed by AMU and by straightforward play by the powerful hosts. The Papists struggled to hold their ground as their defensive line failed to advance to meet their strong running opponents. In an ugly first half that saw nearly every set piece go to the hosts, the lads from Ave Maria entered the halftime break very much in danger of letting this one slip away. UNF led at the half by a score of 19-5.

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With AMU captain Chris Audino’s relationship with the referee disintegrating, the already chippy match had nearly seen two fights break out and the captains talked to several times. The referee ended up issuing three yellow cards (two to UNF for malicious play and one to AMU for an accidental dangerous tackle) all of which result in ten minute suspensions from play for the players involved.

It was impressive to see how much both teams wanted the victory and to what lengths they were willing to go to defend their brothers in arms. Led back onto the pitch by their resolved leader, the Papists took the encouraging observations of their coaching staff to heart as they looked to make use of their superior fitness to mount a comeback once again.

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True to the movie script that was not so subconsciously in the minds of the underdog team, the Papists (representing roughly 800 undergraduates) set a new tone in the opening stages of the second half. The defensive line rediscovered its iron curtain attack and the renewed energy and spirit of the squad stifled the Deadbirds’ slowing attack.

Unable to sustain the intensity of the early part of the game, it was suddenly Ave Maria’s turn to dominate the run of play. Bolstered by a wholly reengineered rucking style, the visitors made full use of the weapons given them by their coaching staff and the game began to take shape. The momentum was clearly swinging into the hands of the underdogs, but there was still a struggle to finish.

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As is often the case in tightly contested championship matches, an individual act of brilliance sparked the beginning of a comeback attempt. Forcing a turnover in his own half of the field, Ave Maria University sensation Joe McMahon snatched the ball from the midst of the Deadbird host and proceeded to carry the ball over 60 meters passing as many as 5 defenders to score the try that his beloved Papists so desperately needed. Captain Chris Audino converted the kick following the try to bring the Papists within 7.

Even though UNF held onto their 19-12 lead for another strong run of Papist play, the AMU captain made a gutsy call with the match running into its final 15-20 minutes of play by electing to attempt a penalty kick for 3 points from roughly 40 meters out. Stepping up to take the kick himself, Audino struck the ball with confidence and authority as he sent it clearly through the uprights to make the scoreline 19-15.

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Receiving the kick after the penalty, the lads from AMU could taste the comeback and the opportunity for a glorious victory as they were now within a single unconverted try of taking the lead. UNF renewed their fight to try and desperately cling to such a narrow advantage as time was as of yet still on their side. With the state championship running down into its final 10 minutes of play, the coaching staff for AMU made a bold move. At a stoppage in play, Ave Maria made a triple substitution in hopes of injecting new energy and speed at such a crucial time in the season. What made the choice all the more of a gamble was that Coaches Gay, Audino, and Schiller took off seniors Miquel Gonzalez and Colin Smith and Junior Thaddeus Guerrero (some of the most experienced veterans on the pitch) to be replaced by Sophomore Danny Lomady, Junior John Royals, and freshman Brady Ostendorf respectively.

The injection of youth into the squad at that critical stage did not backfire. Shortly thereafter dominant breakdown play by the Papists enabled Chris Audino to get the ball into the hands of senior star, Cameron Popik, who took it upon himself to achieve glory for his club and university as he sliced authoritatively through UNF’s defensive line as he made a 50+ meter run and willed his way to placing the ball exactly on the try line to give Ave Maria University its first lead of the game. The try itself gave the Papists a 20-19 advantage but as captain Chris Audino was lining up to attempt the conversion kick, the UNF weak side flanker rushed on too early to block the kick and so even though Audino narrowly missed the conversion, he was granted a re-take by the referee. On his re-take the senior veteran made no mistake as he smashed the very deep kick straight through to make the score 22-19.

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The lads from AMU did not rest on their laurels however, realizing that even though there were only about 5 minutes remaining, their task was not done. The Papists retained possession of the ball and marched down the field in hopes of putting their opponents to the sword once and for all. Gaining a penalty tap only five meters from the opposing try line, Chris Audino prudentially decided to place the ball in the hands of Junior prop Nate Pacer who met the entire fierce defensive effort of UNF at their try line only to single-handedly will his way to somehow scoring the try.

The heroics of this game was quite literally the stuff of legend. Anyone watching with a stake in the game realized how dramatic it was and the classically educated AMU lads and coaching staff did not fail to see their exploits in the epic terms that befitted the feat they were actively accomplishing. Years of hard work, sweat, blood, and tears and heartbreaking defeats were coming to their awaited fruition in a high stakes and fitting championship match. With about 2 minutes to play, however, the story had not yet seen its happy ending.

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Giving full credit to the proud hosts, UNF kicked off to substitute Brady Ostendorf only to have 4 or 5 of their biggest strongest players smash him as he came to ground and they immediately won possession of the ball by sheer strength. AMU was then subsequently penalized 3 consecutive times and the referee incorrectly permitted the home team to repeatedly take the penalties quickly so that they progressed all the way to the Papists’ try line in a matter of seconds. On the run that ended in a try for the home team, AMU Freshman Peter Rohan became the final victim of a jaw-dropping hit that sent him off the field and brought UNF to within 3 points in the final minute of the match.

The battle-worn and heroic Papists clung to their 29-26 lead even as the referee waved off two obvious knock-on penalties committed by the Deadbirds in the final run of play until the UNF winger, with a potentially one on one matchup with the final man in the AMU defense, knocked the ball forward and out of play to the sound of the match referee’s final whistle and the exultation of the Ave Maria side that had just found a way to claim glory on the field of battle and renown among the southeastern US rugby community.

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As the brothers in arms shared the initial moments of victory, the AMU captain (who picked up a pretty serious calf injury in the late part of the match but carried on) Chris Audino called his lads together to give out three cheers for their worthy opponents and one for the ref and lined up to shake hands and bury the hatchet of whatever had happened on the pitch. True to form and to their authentically Catholic fervor, the lads took a knee over by the small but dedicated band of supporters who had made the long journey to be witnesses to the glory of the day to offer that glory up to the God Who made them and to His most Holy Mother, the patroness of their alma mater. As Audino’s voice rang out “Our Lady Queen of Victory!” the Papist family responded in unison in a display of manifest Catholic virility “pray for us!”

In the immediate aftermath of their offering to the Lord, coach Jeremy Gay instructed his troops to enjoy the moment as one that is rare and special in this life. After all, how many young men ever get the opportunity to be a part of such a special band of brothers and passionately faithful brothers at that? Given that the current coaching staff represent much of the core visionaries that founded and gave life to the club, there was an overwhelming consensus in the hours that followed that on that day one could see the true success of the Papists in the eyes and hearts of the young men who have been forever changed by becoming a part of this unique brotherhood.

Rugby was brought to AMU by students for the benefit of young men and for the entire community. The first contact sport at AMU, Rugby was founded on the high ideals of instilling and practicing real virtue on the pitch and off. Such occasions of on-field success have been long in the making and are signs of the good work that has been going on for years.

This particular state title has opened up unprecedented opportunities for glory for the Papists and for further renown for Ave Maria University. Overcoming the obstacles of minimal funding, no scholarships, and no coaching salaries, the Papists have embodied a true amateur spirit. Their love for the game, for their brothers, and for the university has spurred them on to truly great heights.

Winning the State Title has given the Papists the privilege of representing Florida in the South Championships this upcoming weekend in Pensacola (3/15 + 3/16). While the Papists are hopeful of carrying on their historic run, the pursuit of reaching the final 16 in the nation comes at some real monetary costs. The club has set a goal of raising $7,000 to fund its ongoing championship run. A generous benefactor of the club has agreed to match all contributions until the goal is reached.

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Please consider pledging your support on behalf of Ave Maria University Rugby by sending a tax deductible donation via check written out to Ave Maria University. Please add “Rugby Club” to the memo! Checks can be sent to:

Ave Maria University
Attn, Pat Logue
5050 Ave Maria Blvd
Ave Maria, FL 34142

Please email miquel.gonzalez@my.avemaria.edu to inform the club of your donation so that the lads can keep track of how far along they are to reaching their goal of $7,000.

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