Pygmies drastically improved in closing loss
For graduating senior captain Enrique Koerdell of New Mexico Tech’s men’s rugby team, it was “closure.” Koerdell’s Pygmies didn’t beat the Santos RFC in Santa Fe Saturday — in 40 years only one Pygmy squad has — but they came close.
Capping a season in which Pygmy wins were exceedingly rare — outscoring New Mexico State in a Feb. 2 scrimmage and hammering an inexperienced Colorado State at Pueblo tens side on March 30 — this nip and tuck 48-41 loss “felt like a win” as Koerdell congratulated a young team, exhilarated by their newfound competitiveness.
Just seven days before, Santa Fe had handed a listless Tech side a 34-5 loss in the Socorro Tens Challenge consolation match, the collegians’ third lopsided setback of the day. As significant gaps appeared in the roster for the rematch, especially among the team’s more experienced players, it became clear the Pygmies would be hard pressed to field a full 15-man team, let alone have substitute players on hand.
Cue the match’s first twist, a midweek email to Pygmy HQ from Jay Herrera, Tech Rugby’s 2009 Jeremiah Wright Cup player of the year. Feeling the itch after a hiatus from rugby, the always-fit Tech grad was immediately recruited into the pivotal scrum half position and it was “game on.”
Following a curtain raiser in which Rio Rancho High School beat the Santa Fe Shockers, the collegians faced off against a Santo team featuring former Tech greats Rob Harrison, Royce Beaudry and Dylan Merrigan. Suiting up in their final match for the Pygmies were Jason Aragon and Hugh Tye-Dias, 2011 Player of the Year Isaiah Sanchez, and Koerdell, the 2012 winner. Among several rookies in the Tech team was Koerdell’s younger brother, freshman Javier.
Koerdell said, “The first Pygmy match I ever played (as a freshman in 2009) was on the same field in Santa Fe. Jay (Herrera) was playing scrum half for us, and Izzy (Sanchez) was at fullback.”
The 80-minute match opened ominously as Tech turned over possession at their own 22-meter line and Santa Fe quickly capitalized on a try by Beaudry. Elden Pennington’s two-point conversion attempt missed, but Tech was in a familiar position, trailing 5-0 in the opening minute.
Tech’s strategy of committing fewer players to the tackle situations seemed to pay off minutes later as they secured possession and got the ball to fullback Isaiah Sanchez, possibly the highest scorer in New Mexico Tech’s 40-year rugby history. Veteran prop forward Tyler Fletcher couldn’t manage the kick in blustery conditions and the scores stood level at five.
At six minutes Pennington got across for Santa Fe but again missed the kick for a 10-5 Santa Fe advantage. The Santos passed the ball around confidently but Tech’s youngsters tackled gamely and eventually forced Santa Fe into a penalty. Herrera quickly tapped the ball and passed on to his teammates, and the elder Koerdell eventually touched down for Tech’s answering try. In a challenging day of conversion kicking for both teams, Koerdell couldn’t nudge Tech into the lead.
On another day Santa Fe may have broken the Pygmies with back-to-back tries scored by David Jondreau and Beaudry, 28 and 35 minutes into the half. Pennington recovered his kicking boot to make each score worth seven points and Santa Fe held their first commanding lead, 24-10, five minutes before halftime.
But Tech was in no mood to be intimidated. The forwards confronted their larger opponents with ball-winning intent and the backline, with freshman Brian Arko in his first start at center, ran and passed crisply. At 37 minutes, Santa Fe’s defense was breached and inside center Ben Long sprinted over the line for Tech’s third try, also unconverted. Jason Lee, playing his first game at lock, aided Tech’s first-half comeback when he finished a long passing movement in which several of his teammates handled. Koerdell’s kick trimmed the Santo lead to 24-22.
Beaudry scored another try two minutes after the break to widen Santa Fe’s lead back to seven points, 29-22. At 15 minutes, freshman wing Cameron Rist laid a shuddering tackle on a Santo player, and the ball popped loose for Tyler Fletcher to show his athleticism by breaking one tackle and outsprinting the cover for the score. Javier Koerdell’s kick flew wide and Tech was within two at 29-27.
Midway through the final half Santa Fe’s Fred Boomhower scored on a long run for a 34-27 lead. A minute later the dangerous Pennington touched down again and converted to challenge Tech with their second big deficit of the day, 41-27.
Once again the students clawed back, first with a five-pointer by the hard-running Lee. Koerdell’s kick made it 41-34 eight minutes from full time. Poetically it came to Isaiah Sanchez, playing his last game in an illustrious career, to score Tech’s last try of the season, a long trademark gallop to a spot between the uprights. Koerdell’s kick was true and after 78 minutes of play each team had 41 points.
But Tech’s upset was not to be, on this day at least. Former Pygmy Robert Harrison preserved the senior side’s pride by squeezing over the line to score just before the final whistle and Pennington’s kick brought the final score to 48-41.
New Mexico Tech saluted their four senior starters — Aragon, Koerdell, Sanchez, and Tye-Dias — with Men of the Match honors. New Mexico Tech has entered a team in the Celtic Sevens Tournament to be played at Albuquerque’s Balloon Park on May 18. Rugby will return to the Olympics in the seven-man format during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games.