Pygmies Second, Queens Winless in Arizona
New Mexico Tech men's rugby team finally hit their stride Saturday at the annual Northern Arizona Tens Tournament in Flagstaff, winning three matches in convincing fashion before being edged in the championship match. The performance was a big improvement over a disappointing 38-22 home loss to New Mexico State University on September 21. In the women's division the NM Queens had less success on the scoreboard but managed to finish with a flourish.
A young team unavoidably short on experience, the Queens went down to Arizona powerhouse Tempe Rugby Club's "A" side 33-0 in an 8:45 a.m. encounter, then seemingly lost heart against Old Pueblo of Tucson to lose 44-0 two hours later.
After one half of play against Red Mountain (Tempe) in their third match the Queens seemed headed for a final whitewash. Trailing 32 – 0, the students turned the tables in the last minutes with aggressive tackling, stingy ball possession, and determined support play. Center Lynnae Logan, one of a very few Queens returning from last year's team, scored a five-point try to reward her teammates' driving play. Her drop kick conversion added another two points to the Queens' account.
Queens' Emily Randall ran the ensuing kickoff a few meters before passing off for scrum half and club president Cassie Coleman to show her speed by outflanking Red Mountain's defenders and tearing 50 meters down the left touchline to score in the corner. Logan's kick missed from a steep angle but the winless Queens celebrated their 12 points with a hearty post-match cheer. Hooker Lisa Sanchez was selected by her teammates as Woman of the Day.
Pygmies' backs captain Isaac Juarez bagged his team's first try of the day from his center position against hosts Northern Arizona University Landsharks in the 8:00 a.m. opener. First year fullback Joe Wilch and prop forward and club president Jason Lee added second half tries and Steve Bernsen added a two-point conversion kick to put the finishing touches on a 17-7 victory.
In their second match Tech ran roughshod over NAU's "B" team, the Carp, scoring 33 unanswered points with Jason Lee and 240-pound freshman lock John Huckabee each running in two tries and Joe Wilch adding another. Bernsen and Wilch combined for four successful conversion kicks.
Fly half Steve Bernsen's leadership and passing skills figured prominently in the final pool match against the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. First year lock forward Fritz Hieb and veteran center Ben Long both scored from pinpoint passes from Bernsen. The Pygmies added four more five-point tries in the second half, with Lee, Long, Huckabee, and veteran hooker Sean Mussell all touching down. Bernsen added two more conversions to complete a 38-5 drubbing.
The championship game, a rematch with NAU, featured five lead changes. Tech opened after 10 minutes with Bernsen weaving through defenders to touch down and then convert his own try. But the Landsharks rallied with two tries to take a 12-7 lead into halftime.
Awarded a penalty kick soon after halftime, Bernsen foot-tapped the ball and rifled a scoring pass to 6' 6", 245-pound lock Fritz Hieb 15 meters from NAU's try line. Bernsen added the conversion for a 14-12 lead. But NAU scored from a scrum close to Tech's five minutes later and NAU regained the upper hand, 17-14.
As play resumed the home team was again whistled for a penalty at virtually the same point as Tech's previous score, and once again Bernsen put Hieb over the line for five points. Bernsen then added the conversion to put Tech ahead 21-17 with seconds left to play.
But Tech's championship dreams were dashed as the ball popped loose on the ensuing kickoff and the Landsharks capitalized with a well-worked try that broke Pygmy hearts and brought the home team a razor thin 22-21 victory.
Steve Bernsen was awarded the Pygmies' Man of the Day Cup. The Pygmies will seek to avenge a 34-26 loss to their Ancestors in last year's Black and Blue alumni match at the Tech rugby ground at 4:30 Friday, Oct 18. Food, music, and play-by-play commentary will feature in this iconic 49ers event. Admission is free.