Gaels Advance to Fifth Straight National Championship With 43-7 Win Over Arizona | By: Christian Portillo

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MORAGA, CALIF. - The semifinal match between top ranked Saint Mary’s and #14 Arizona took place on a sunny, drop-dead gorgeous day at Saint Mary’s Stadium. Although Saint Mary’s was heavily favored due to their extensive playoff experience and their home-field advantage, Arizona relished the underdog role. The Wildcats, who finished the 2014 D1AA season in second place and progressed to be in the D1A Final Four by defeating the Air Force Academy 51-7 and Baylor 48-5, were looking to play spoiler as they fielded many young players that were All-Americans in high school.

The well-versed postseason veteran Alec Barton began the match by putting his head down while carrying several Wildcat defenders with him past the try line for the opening try out of continuous phase play. Dylan Audsley made his first of five conversions on the day to give the Gaels an early 7-0 lead.

Audsley was able to tack on three more points early on with a penalty goal from the left hash mark just beyond the 22 metre line to get Saint Mary’s 10 points 10 minutes into the match.

As has been the theme all season long, defense was the name of the game. Arizona spent a considerable amount of time in the Gaels’ 22, but to no avail. The Saint Mary’s defense held up like a well-oiled machine and often forced the Wildcats to either lose field position or to turn it over. When the Wildcats did catch a break, such as when fly-half Kyle Rogers found a hole and ran straight through it, his pass was knocked-on, resulting in a change of possession in what otherwise would have been a surefire try.

It took about thirteen minutes before the Gaels would score again after Audsley’s penalty goal. Returning from the annual Spring Tour with a renewed emphasis on the intensity of the scrum, Saint Mary’s won a scrum and the quick, decisive passes by both scrum-half Holden Yungert and flanker Alec Barton kept the possession alive, the ball found its way through the hands of Audsley, Waller, Rodriguez, and Waller once again before it found a home in fly-half Mike McCarthy’s hands via a Payton Telea offload for a try on the right side. Audsley curved the conversion perfectly in-between the goalposts for the Gaels’ last two points of the first half that would give them a 17-0 lead.

Although Saint Mary’s couldn’t capitalize, they did have several more opportunities in the first half to score even more. One prime example was when Kevin O’Connor smartly took advantage of an Arizona defense that was walking at a zombie-like pace by taking a ball that was kicked into touch and quickly passing it to a charging Holden Yungert, who ran down a significant part of the pitch before being brought down. Although support was there, the Arizona defense held firm before allowing a Saint Mary’s scrum. However, the Gaels would lose possession due to barging and the chance to score from about the five metre line was lost just like that.

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The Wildcats didn’t have the best of luck, either. After a lineout, scrum-half Matt Rogers found a hole, kicked the ball, and almost recovered it for a try but his sprinting legs accidentally kicked the ball into touch, giving possession back to the Gaels. Arizona struggled to drive forward against the Gaels as well. Several times, they were pushed back from the line after no forward progress. Strong defense, penalties, and unforced errors such as knock-ons marked the concluding minutes of the first half for both sides, neither of whom were able to get on the board after Audsley converted McCarthy’s try to give Saint Mary’s a 17-0 lead heading into halftime.

Three minutes into the second half, Saint Mary’s prop Payton Telea and Arizona scrum-half were both hit with yellow cards, forcing them to sit out for ten minutes on the sideline. This did not affect Vili Helu of Saint Mary’s, who somehow managed to stay on his feet to keep a possession alive. The extra effort of the talented eight-man paid off once Ethan Waller passed to McCarthy, who offloaded the ball to Jack Carso in the right corner for the try to open up the second half. Audsley’s successful conversion gave the Gaels a 24-0 lead.

McCarthy delivered a chip kick to the left side where Chris McDonnell was able to perfectly time the correct bounce of the ball, which is harder than it looks, and almost took it all the way for the try. Instead, the play ended up as a Wildcat scrum near the Saint Mary’s try line. The Gaels actually won the scrum, and Holden Yungert quickly fed Alejandro Duran, who flipped into the try zone for the try off the bench. Things have a strange way of working themselves out in life, and this play was another instance of this maxim. Audsley hit the conversion from the left side to give Saint Mary’s a 31-0 lead.

After a lineout, the Gaels went wide as McCarthy passed to inside centre Aaron Matthews on the left sideline, who was then able to stumble his way into the left corner for the try. Audsley missed his only conversion of the day as his kick had no bend on it and went too straight from the outside angle he was positioned at.

With a 36-0 lead and the match well in hand, the Gaels did not put their foot on the brakes. Vili Helu was running on the left side and offloaded it to the inside, where Mike Garrett was running as support and was able to take it down the middle for the final try of the semifinal match. Audsley hit the easy conversion to give him five total conversions, on six attempts, and one penalty goal for a total of 13 points.

Kyle Rogers of Arizona had a big run but was held up right at the goal line by the Saint Mary’s defense. He was inches away from scoring, but the Gael will to not let him score was a great defensive play that was reminiscent of Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999, when the Tennessee Titans were one yard short of winning it all because of the effort of Los Angeles Rams’ Mike Jones to stop Kevin Dyson from reaching the end zone.

It was quite the defensive play that summarized how the match went up until that point, but Arizona did eventually score. With no time on the clock, Dante Weeks rivaled Speedy Gonzales with the speed that he ran down the left sideline with to score Arizona’s one and only try of the match. Anton Grigoriou’s conversion ended the match, giving the Wildcats 7 points to the Gaels’ 43.
With the win over Arizona in the semifinals, Saint Mary’s advances to their fifth consecutive D1A National Championship. They will play Life University, who defeated BYU 36-26 in the other semifinal match, at Saint Mary’s Stadium next Saturday, May 6th, at 4:00 P.M. This is also the fifth straight time that Saint Mary’s will face Life in the final. Saint Mary’s won in 2014 and 2015 while Life has bookended the Gaels’ back-to-back championships with championships of their own in 2013 and 2016. Tickets are available online now through Friday, May 5th, at noon. If you cannot attend, the match will also be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.