Men’s Rugby Rallies to Win First National Championship

HOUSTON, Texas – The journey for the Navy men’s rugby team (18-0) in its first varsity season concluded by winning the program’s first Division I-A National Championship by a final score of 28-22 over No. 5 California (13-4) on Saturday in Houston, Texas.

Despite facing their largest deficit of the season (15 points) and trailing for over 60 minutes, the Mids came from behind to earn their second victory of the season against the Golden Bears.

Flanker Tanner Russell was named the College Rugby Association of America (CRAA) DI-A National Championship Player of the Match.  

“It wasn’t until the kick went out and the final whistle was blown that I felt this match was over. To go down, 15-0, to Cal and claw back to win this game is remarkable and this team earned the right to call themselves national champions,” said director of rugby Gavin Hickie. “Before this season we had never beaten Cal and to do it twice with all the pressure shows you what kind of team this is. They can’t get enough accolades and credit for the work they’ve put in. These men deserve medals and now they have them around their necks that say national champions.

“I hope our seniors have learned a valuable lesson over the last four years that they can use in the fleet and be the best leaders they can be. No matter what the scoreboard says, if that’s what happens then it’s a job well done.”

Cal struck first in the match with a try in the ninth minute. The Golden Bears attacked the left sideline and their ball carrier slipped through a pair of tackle attempts before cutting up the middle to walk into the try zone. Cal made the ensuing conversion kick to take a 7-0 lead.

The Golden Bears were awarded a free kick following the kickoff for a not releasing penalty against the Mids. Cal gained possession at midfield after winning the lineout and a big carry drove its offensive attack inside the 22-meter line. The Golden Bears continued their march forward and found the try zone again in the 13th minute. The Golden Bears missed the conversion kick to keep the score at 12-0.

Penalties against Navy allowed Cal to push into its offensive zone again with a free kick. The Golden Bears won the ensuing lineout and used a fake pass to put the Mids out of position. Cal took advantage of the defensive holes to drive inside the 22-meter zone. The Golden Bears surged inside the five-meter line, but were penalized to return possession to the Mids. Cal retook possession on a Navy penalty and used its aggressive front-row attack to return to the 22-meter line. An additional penalty was called on the Mids during the possession to award the Golden Bears a penalty kick opportunity. Cal’s kicker snuck the ball through the uprights in the 23rd minute to put Navy in its largest deficit of the season at 15-0.

Cal’s pressure again caused Navy to commit a penalty at midfield and the free kick attempt set up a lineout at the 10-meter line in its attacking zone. A knock-on penalty against the Golden Bears returned the ball to the Mids. Cal was penalized on the scrum to award Navy a free kick, which Lewis Gray sent out of bounds right at the 22-meter. The Mids were in scoring position for the first time in the 27th minute, but lost the ball after overthrowing the lineout. However, Navy quickly took back possession after Cal was called for an offensive penalty. William Webb’s next throw-in attempt on the lineout was perfect to set up a maul. The Mids powered inside the five-meter line with their maul attack and Webb dove into the try zone to provide the first score for Navy in the 29th minute. Roanin Krieger made a deep conversion kick from the right sideline to make the score, 15-7.

Krieger had an opportunity to add three points on a penalty kick in the 35th minute, but his attempt was unsuccessful to keep Navy’s deficit at eight.

The Mids went back on the attack after receiving the punt and were awarded a free kick opportunity on a penalty at the 10-meter line. Gray’s kick set up a lineout just outside the 22-meter line. Navy controlled the lineout and Ben Haugh broke through Cal’s defensive front to push possession down to the five-meter line. Sean MacLaney picked up the ball following the tackle and walked right past Cal’s defense for a try in the 38th minute. Krieger nailed another conversion kick to send Navy into the locker room only down a point.

Navy pushed into its offensive zone less than two minutes into the second half, but Cal stripped the ball away to force a turnover. The Golden Bears made two passes to the left of the pitch and missed tackles allowed the ball carrier to run inside the 22-meter zone. Cal’s offense surged to the five-meter line, but committed a knock-on penalty to grant Navy a scrum. The Golden Bears took back possession at the 22-meter line after a clear kick attempt, but were victims of another knock-on penalty. Landon Opp sent the ball out near midfield to set up a lineout. Navy lost possession due to not keeping the throw-in attempt straight to put Cal back on the offensive.

The Golden Bears drove down to the 22-meter line, but mishandled a pass to put the ball on the ground. However, Cal corralled the loose ball and slipped through Navy’s defensive line to score a try in the 52nd minute. The Golden Bears made a crucial conversion kick after scoring their third try to go ahead, 22-14.

Navy forced a turnover following the kickoff and quickly marched inside the 22-meter zone on a carry from Gray. The Mids bulldozed their way inside the five-meter line, but turned the ball over while trying to dive into the try zone. The Golden Bears immediately kicked the ball to the other half of the pitch to force the Mids to reset their attack.

Dale Sturdifen went to work down the left sideline and pushed Navy back into Cal territory after breaking three tackles. A penalty on the Golden Bears in the 58th minute allowed Opp to send a free kick down to the 22-meter line. Cal was caught offsides during Navy’s ensuing attack and Opp kicked the free attempt down to the five-meter line. The Mids formed a maul after winning the lineout and pushed the ball right at the try line. Ryan Bullock’s diving effort was signaled a try in the 61st minute and Krieger’s successful conversion kick made it a one-point game.

Cal’s offense had a quick response and drove the ball down to Navy’s 22-meter line less than a minute after the try. The Golden Bears mishandled a pass and the ball went right into the hands of Sturdifen to put the Mids back on offense. A pair of powerful runs from Matthew Thibodaux pushed the ball near the 22-meter line. Gray received the ball on the left side of the pitch and made a no-look pass to Jack Aleman, who provided a big run to put the Mids less than a meter away from a go-ahead try. Cal’s defense stayed composed and held up the ball to retake possession.

The Golden Bears kicked the ball back to the other half of the pitch, but Krieger gained back over 20 meters on the kick return. Opp received a pass on the right sideline and slipped through a pair of ankle tackles. He ran over 30 meters before touching the ball down in the middle of the try zone for the go-ahead score in the 68th minute. Krieger put the ensuing conversion kick right down the middle of the uprights to give the Mids a 28-22 advantage.

Navy mishandled the kickoff after its score and Cal was inside the 22-meter zone just 20 seconds later. The Golden Bears pushed near the five-meter line, but were penalized for not releasing to give the Mids a free kick. Webb broke through a tackle to push the ball back to the 10-meter line. However, he was issued a penalty for not releasing to award the Golden Bears a free kick. The kick went out of bounds right at the 22-meter line to set up a lineout with five minutes remaining in the match.

Cal drove inside the five-meter line, but Navy’s defense came up with a huge turnover to prevent a try. The Mids gained a few meters back with their ball movement before committing a knock-on penalty to give the Golden Bears a scrum. Cal again marched inside the five-meter line, but a hard tackle by Gray knocked the ball out to return possession to Navy. Opp used a kick attempt to push the Golden Bears back to the 10-meter line. Cal did regain possession after the kick, but was penalized for an illegal throw-in attempt on the lineout. The Mids used short carries to melt the clock and kicked the ball out of bounds in the 80th minute to become national champions.

Krieger led the Mids in scoring with eight points after finishing the game 4/4 on conversion kick attempts. The freshman ends the season as Navy’s second-best scorer with 113 points.

Opp’s game-winning try was his fourth of the season to raise his point total to 34 points.  

Bullock scored his sixth try of the campaign and fourth in his last four matches.

Webb attained his first try since Navy’s match against Kutztown (Oct. 29) for his seventh of the season.

Box Score
First Half
9:29 – Try – Cal (0-5)
Conversion Kick – Cal (0-7)

13:20 – Try – Cal (0-12)

23:15 – Penalty Kick – Cal (0-15)

29:45 – Try – Navy – William Webb (5-15)
Conversion Kick – Roanin Krieger (7-15)

38:55 – Try – Navy – Sean MacLaney (12-15)
Conversion Kick – Roanin Krieger (14-15)

Second Half
52:50 – Try – Cal (14-20)
Conversion Kick – Cal (14-22)

61:56 – Try – Navy – Ryan Bullock (19-22)
Conversion Kick – Roanin Krieger (21-22)

68:28 – Try – Navy – Landon Opp (26-22)
Conversion Kick – Roanin Krieger (28-22)

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Dale Sturdifen

Wing 6′ 2″ Senior

Matthew Thibodaux

Tight Head Prop 5′ 10″ Senior

Ryan Bullock

Prop 5′ 11″ Senior

Ben Haugh

8-Man 6′ 2″ Junior

Jack Aleman

Center 5′ 10″ Junior

Sean MacLaney

Scrum Half 5′ 7″ Junior

Tanner Russell

Flanker 6′ 0″ Sophomore

William Webb

Hooker 6′ 0″ Sophomore

Lewis Gray

Center/Fly Half 5′ 11″ Senior

Landon Opp

Fly Half/Fullback 5′ 10″ Junior