Four days after winning the SoCal Championship, the SMRC U18s on Wednesday headed for Elkhart, Indiana, to compete in the High School Boys National Invitational Tournament. The Dolphins won the first two of their three matches in three days against the best teams in the country, ultimately falling short in the championship match against #1 seed Cathedral Royal Irish.
The Dolphins’ first match, against the Carolina champion Charlotte Tigers, proved to be a showcase for the fine play that earned the Dolphins a berth at nationals. The first strike came within ninety seconds of the kickoff as the Dolphins flyhalf Alex Walsh took a quick pass off a set piece and ran untouched for a score. Four more tries from the Santa Monica backs Parker Lynch, Cormac Heaney, Olan Moon-White, and Nate Peterson, and a penalty and two conversions from Walsh, gave the Dolphins a 32-12 victory in the quarterfinal.
Friday’s semifinal found the Dolphins pitted against SoCal rival San Diego Mustangs, whom they had defeated just a few days before in a tight SCYR Championship match. Indiana proved not to be close at all as the Santa Monica defense stymied the Mustangs, barely allowing a sniff at the goal line and holding the #7 seed to a mere three-point penalty. The Dolphins scored three tries, with two coming from forwards Tom Heaney and Conor Lydon. Wing Boris Mitrofanov added a third and, with a penalty and two conversions from Walsh, the Dolphins cruised to a 22-3 win.
The Championship match on Saturday saw a huge turnout for the local Indiana team, Cathedral Royal Irish. But there was plenty of noise from the Santa Monica side as parents, families, and supporters made the trek from the West Coast to support their Dolphins. The matchup between two previously undefeated teams rewarded fans with a great display of the nation’s top youth rugby talent.
The first half was a defensive battle, with neither side willing to give any quarter. Santa Monica’s rolling maul, which had dominated the mighty Mustangs the day before, couldn’t find the same success against Cathedral. Though the Royal Irish had the majority of possession, they missed two penalties and found themselves scoreless with time running out in the first half as the SM defense was up to the task. The Dolphins looked to go into halftime with a well-earned 0-0 draw until, on the last play, Cathedral were awarded a free kick at the Santa Monica five-meter line. The Royal Irish took advantage and scored a crucial try right beside the goalposts which was converted, making it 7-0 going into the break.
Like the first half, the second half was a physical battle which commenced at a fast pace. The Dolphins found themselves under pressure both offensively, due to a strong-rushing defense by Cathedral’s backs, and defensively, as the Royal Irish constantly made good ground on attack utilizing decoy runners and clever backline switches by their High School All-American flyhalf Brian Hannon.
The Dolphins were unlucky not to score when their driving maul was penalized in a controversial decision inches from the Cathedral goal line. Minutes later, twenty yards out from a score, Dolphin hooker Willie Hock burst through an opening but Cathedral knocked down Hock’s pass to prop Benny Gonda in what would probably have been a try to Santa Monica.
Cathedral eventually managed a brilliant try from a disrupted Santa Monica lineout, poaching the ball and in the ensuing counterattack putting the ball through five or six different hands as they criss-crossed the field at pace for eighty yards. The weary Dolphin defense were out-flanked and the converted score gave Cathedral a 14-0 lead which would hold until full-time.
The scoreline flattered the winners in a close match, and although victory was sadly denied, the Dolphins represented Santa Monica proudly with a fine display of courage, grit, and commitment on an afternoon when the bounce of the ball just did not go their way. From being unranked months ago to number two in the nation is a result of the hard work and determination put in by the boys and their coaches Charlie Lydon, Andrew Clark, and Danny Conn.
The Santa Monica Rugby Club’s U18 Boys and their coaches, moments after being awarded Runner-Up at the HS Boys National Invitational Tournament in Elkhart, Indiana, on Saturday. [Photo: S Whitty]