Boot And Rally: Jesuit Wins Single-School Nationals

The single-school final of the Boys High School Rugby Championship lived up to its billing, providing drama, excitement, and a touch of poignancy as Jesuit knocked off defending champion Gonzaga 21-13 in Kansas City, MO, on Saturday to take back the title the Eagles have held the last three seasons.

Playing at Swope Soccer Village, the Marauders dedicated their effort to Robert Paylor, a recent Jesuit grad who suffered a serious neck injury two weeks ago in a game for Cal. Many fans were wearing wristbands and T-shirts that carried the slogan "Paylor Strong."

Certainly, the Marauders played with the passion of a team wanting to accomplish a task for a loved one. Gonzaga, which hails from Washington, D.C., was hampered by injury as it battled through the weekend. But Jesuit was hit hard by an illness making its way through schools in the Sacramento area, forcing changes throughout the squad. The Marauders' second team played in Tier II and finished fourth.

The difficulties the two teams were dealing with could be illustrated by their two top loose forwards. Eagles No. 8 Will Lyke suffered an ankle injury in his team's semifinal win over Penn. He started and played well but was subbed off in the second half, unable to continue.

Garrett Kay for Jesuit was ill and missed Friday's semifinal. He was held out on Saturday but was on the bench and came on to give 15 quality minutes at the end.

Jesuit looked to avoid getting into a forwards' slog and found some attacking opportunities through the likes of Conrad Hawkins and Jacob Vasser. Twice the Marauders worked their way into Gonzaga territory. Twice the Eagles committed penalties. Twice scrumhalf Carlos Rodriguez kicked the penalty goals, giving Jesuit a 6-0 lead.

Gonzaga punished a couple of Jesuit penalties to get into Marauders territory, and while the Jesuit defense held, the Eagles got a penalty advantage right in front of the posts. Scrumhalf Max Draddy found Owen Sheehy in the pocket, and the flyhalf put over a drop goal to make it 6-3.

Back came Jesuit. The Eagles got some big carries from prop Joe Marchant and lock Conner Bellinger, but little errors and penalties in the ruck hurt them. Then the backline fumbled on a fairly routine movement, and Gonzaga wing Cliff Wallace nabbed the ball and raced 70 meters down the sideline for a try. Ian Kilcullen put over the difficult conversion, and the Eagles led 10-6.

For much of the rest of the half, Gonzaga tried to press its advantage but could not crack the Jesuit line. Similarly, the Marauders had chances, including a couple of penalties in close in which they opted for scrums, and Gonzaga held them out.

As the Eagles took a 10-6 lead into halftime, neither side was really able to construct anything and certainly not able to convert time in the opposition's 22 into tries.

But early on in the second half, Jesuit got a breakthrough. It started with an attack down the left, and quick ball allowed hands down the backline to the right, where Jonathan Annadi found a seam and put on the jet to dive over in the corner. The Marauders took the lead at 11-10, but Gonzaga replied right after, with Kilcullen getting a penalty goal for a 13-11 Eagles lead.

At this point, Gonzaga looked content to punish Jesuit in tight, using the likes of Roger Mellado and John O'Toole to power ahead. The backs saw a little bit of ball, and tried to use it, but mostly this was a forwards effort. 

Jesuit, however, did enough to keep Gonzaga away, and the Marauders' scrum was strong enough to steal a couple of key put-ins. At the same time, Jesuit continued to give away momentum with penalties in the ruck. The Marauders were fortunate not to get a yellow card for repeat infringements. They did get a warning, however.

Jesuit continued to work the backs, and while it had its share (and then some) of knock-ons, things started to click late. Vasser was strong in contact and speedy in space, and Jamie Thomas made some crucial plays on counter attacks. Up front, Brandon Calk started to gain territory.

With all of this working, the Marauders set up a wide move that put lock Laiatu Latu into space, and he stretched his legs to dive over in the corner. Ramirez, with the wind angling into the posts from behind him, slotted the touchline conversion and put Jesuit up 18-13.

Back came the Marauders, and Ramirez iced it with a penalty.

The game itself was a series of intense momentum shifts. One team would be defending its line, only to force a turnover or penalty and within moments be on the attack at the other end of the field. For Gonzaga, scrumhalf Max Draddy, center Ian Kilcullen, and the lock partnership of Jack Dufour and Rober Mellado performed admirably. Lyke, on on leg, was as good as most with two.

Jesuit had a series of heroes, although Ramiez had to be at the top of the list.

"I feel the pressure when I am kicking, but I practice it a lot and I know my teammates have faith in me," said Ramirez, who praised heavily the performance of his forwards.

Prop Joe Marchant was as active at the end of the game as at the beginning, and Bellinger and Latu were excellent. But it was the Jesuit deep three of Annadi, Thomas, and Vasser who made the difference.

Jesuit 21
Tries: Annadi, Latu
Convs: Ramirez 
Pens: Ramirez 3

Gonzaga 13
Tries: Wallace
Convs: Kilcullen
Pens: Kilcullen
DGs: Sheehy

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