Tigers suffer heartbreak again in state title game
MONMOUTH -- The Newberg boys rugby team appeared to have momentum on its side heading into the Rugby Oregon Boys Varsity Premiership state championship Saturday versus Reynolds.
After opening the season with a tie versus Union and a narrow defeat to Oregon City, the No. 3 Tigers ripped off five consecutive wins to close the regular season and dispatched No. 3 Battle Ground in the semifinals to earn its third trip to the title game in the past four years.
But just like in its previous two trips, Newberg saw its championship dreams dashed in the finale, this time falling 26-12 to the Raiders at Western Oregon University.
"Having been there last year, I think the boys felt that it was our turn," coach Rick Rogers said. "The way we played the first 10 or 15 minutes of the match, had we been able to continue that, then the outcome probably would have been different. But credit to Reynolds. They played well and executed their game plan."
The match-up did play out as battle of contrasting styles, but in the opposite fashion from their regular season tilt between the two teams, which Newberg won 29-12.
The Tigers prefer a slower pace and move the ball primarily with their forwards, then catch teams off guard by swinging the ball wide to its backs. By dominating possession in the regular-season contest, Newberg dictated the pace of the game and essentially thwarted Reynolds' speed offensively by denying them the ball.
But in the rematch, the Tigers struggled to hold onto the ball, relinquishing possession often with dropped passes, knock-ons and penalties.
Reynolds also put more pressure on Newberg's ball carriers when they got away from the ruck, but prop Isaiah Parker also attributed many of the miscues to big-game jitters.
"I really think we let our nerves get to us," Parker said. "We had so much anxiety about it being the state game and losing twice in the state game in the past three years. We were almost too excited."
With the Tigers unable to play keep away like they had in the first game, Reynolds played it's fast-paced style, quickly cycling the ball out to its backs to advance the ball.
After a feeling-out period of about 10 minutes to start the game, the Raiders followed through on their second foray deep into Tigers territory, quickly swinging the ball out right to set up Ryan Bohnsack for the opening try and a 5-0 lead.
Toward the end of the half, Reynolds broke through for a 30-yard gain to set up shop about 10 meters from Newberg's try line. The Tigers forced the Raiders out of bounds to regain possession, but the Raiders stole a line-in (or inbounds play) a few minutes later and mauled with its forwards to cover the final stretch, with senior captain Kishpaugh punching into the end zone. Co-captain Morris Tautuaa then connected on a difficult conversion kick to make it 12-0 at the break.
Although there were echoes of the blowout loss to the Portland Pumas in last year's title game, Newberg regrouped and came out with renewed vigor to start the second half. The Tigers put together a long drive and got on the board with a try from Parker about 10 minutes in to make it 12-5.
Reynolds got a turnover near midfield after the ensuing kickoff (teams receive the ball after scoring in rugby) and got within a couple of meters of the try line before Newberg kicked a loose ball back out of danger. The Raiders took advantage of the disorganization that followed, swinging the ball to the middle of the field, where Miles Wilson broke through and raced 15 meters into the end zone. Tautuaa converted an easy kick to make it 19-5.
The Tigers answered almost immediately, though, getting a turnover shortly after the kickoff, setting up a try from Rowan Gallardo and a conversion kick to make it 19-12.
Gallardo twice broke free for long runs, including one off an interception that thwarted an early drive by Reynolds. Against most teams, he would have gone the distance for a momentum-shifting try, but both times was corralled by the Raiders' last defender, Kellen Lynch.
"When he grabbed it and I saw him going, I thought it was a try," Isaiah Parker said of Gallardo. "I thought he was going to score, but they've got some speed on that team. There's no one on our squad who can outrun Rowan, so hats off to them for that."
The two teams traded turnovers back and forth after Lynch's second tackle on Gallardo before Izak Rios broke free off a scrum for a 20-meter gain to set Reynolds up inside Newberg territory. Shortly after, Wilson broke free up the middle and rumbled 35 meters for the game-clinching try, with Tautuaa adding the conversion to make the final 26-12.
"It was definitely difficult to mount a comeback because the entire season we had thrived on scoring and then scoring again and scoring again, keeping up that momentum," junior Max Boenisch said. "We did come back and almost tied it up, but we just couldn't mount that comeback. We couldn't really shut them down."
Boenisch was named Man of the Match by the Reynolds players, with Newberg (6-1-2) giving that honor to Nathaniel "Poppa" Wilson for the Raiders (7-2).
The Tigers played without their most experienced player, four-year veteran Geoff Carstensen, due to a concussion, but the senior did earn Rubgy Oregon's Minute Man Award, which recognizes enthusiasm, loyalty and physical fitness, following the game.
"It was a little bit of a blow to morale," Parker said of losing Carstensen. "He's always level-headed and vocal about what we need to do."
The silver lining for Newberg is that its strong class of juniors will return next year, so it's reasonable to think the Tigers will at least be back in contention to make the top playoff bracket yet again.
"We had an amazing season," Boenisch said. "Losing at state, everyone's obviously kind of focused on that and it does kind of block out how great a season we had, which is unfortunate, but I'm still super proud."