The last time a championship matchup was held in the Connecticut State Rugby Tournament was 2019 when Greenwich and Aspetuck Valley dueled in a showdown between nationally ranked powers and Friday, three seasons later, it was time for the two teams to renew their rivalry.
Like their games in previous seasons, today’s meeting was a back-and-forth, physical affair, with the Cardinals and Aspetuck Valley each having their moments. And like the last time the Cardinals and Aspetuck met for the state title back in 2019, it was Aspetuck that pulled out a hard-fought victory.
Greenwich faced a 17-point deficit at halftime, a hole it almost dug out of, but Aspetuck held on for a 24-19 win in a well-attended game at Cardinal Stadium.
“I think we started a little bit slow, a little bit flat,” Greenwich coach Mike Fina said. “I think our fitness really showed up, we were able to come back. We made a few mistakes – mental errors, physical errors in the first half – but it was the first real test that we had this year and I’m happy with how responded.”
Trailing 17-0, the Cardinals closed to within 17-7 when junior Benjamin Thompson sprinted into the try zone with 26:22 remaining in the second half. Thompson made the ensuing conversion kick, cutting visiting Aspetuck Valley’s lead to 17-7.
“I was lucky enough to get the ball through teamwork,” Thompson said. “I got the ball, I just tried to punch it in. I knew it would get the morale of our team up and it would give us a fight to the end.”
Newtown-based Aspetuck Valley Rugby Club, which entered the match ranked No. 9 among club teams in the nation, regained its 17-point lead with a try at the 17:16 mark of the second half, but again, the Cards responded.
Junior Anthony Barallon caught a forward pass and dashed along the right sideline, before diving into the try zone, making it 24-12.
The Cardinals’ offense began clicking during the second half, even though Aspetuck held the possession advantage throughout the game.
“We were on the same page,” Fina said. “We were working together, we were running together, we were tackling together. Overall, I felt that we finally clicked before halftime.”
Aspetuck possessed several very physically strong players and had the size advantage, but Greenwich offset the edge by having speed on its side.
“Had we used that (speed) to our advantage earlier, the score would have reflected that, but then we kind of slowed down and played their game,” Fina said. “There’s some mental things, some We’ll keep getting better. We’re working on being the best at getting better every day.”
Said Garrett O’Dell, who along with Luke Ware and Charlie Beney, is a senior captain – Ware and Beney are currently sidelined and working their way back from injuries – “We just had to keep going and keep pushing. We were more fit than them in the second half and that was obvious in the second half, when they were getting tired, we were beating them to every line.”
O’Dell made it a one-score game with a try with just 1:31 left to play in the second half. Thompson split the uprights with his conversion kick, pulling the Cards to within 24-19. The home team ran out of time though and Aspetuck held on for the victory.
“It was close to the end of the game, we were following the ball staying in position,” O’Dell said. “Moving with the ball is how you keep the play alive, so just following the ball wherever it went and continuing to powering through to the very end.”
Aspetuck, which ended Greenwich’s 11-year reign as state champion when it defeated the Cardinals, 21-12, in the title game in 2019 – the last time the state tournament was held – scored trys with 21:46 remaining in the first half, then added a second try when an interception was returned to the try zone at the 5:47 mark of the opening half. A third try was scored with 1:45 to go in the first half, putting Greenwich down, 17-0. The deficit served as plenty of motivation for the Cardinals.
“What made the difference was our effort was really there,” Thompson said. “Our discipline may have been off a little, but our effort was most definitely there. I knew we put in the work. We knew we were down by 17, but we had to put in some points and work as hard as we could and put up the greatest game as we could.”
“I’m proud of the team, down by 17 at the half, we stuck in there until the last minute,” Thompson continued. “It shows our team’s character and how we’re ready to fight until the end. Hopefully, we’ll see them in the future. I want that revenge.”
As the game progressed, the Cardinals gained some momentum and began limiting their mistakes and penalties.
“We were working for ourselves, working for the team and legacy,” O’Dell said. “We should see them in the state championship. Unfortunately, today what went wrong was a lot of penalties a lot of turnovers. Typical mistakes at the beginning of the season. We turned over the ball a lot of times that we had it, but on offense we need to keep working. Our forwards were very strong and they were putting in their all.”
Greenwich entered the game ranked 14th in the nation among high school teams.
“That’s a great team, they’ve played three very good sides so far this year and they’ve been climbing in the rankings,” Fina said of Aspetuck. “I’m never happy with a loss, but I’m not upset. We’ll keep getting better. We’re working on being the best at getting better every day.”
Up next for Greenwich is a matchup against Fairfield Prep in Fairfield on April 2. The Cardinals will then host Fort Hunt (Virginia) at Cardinal Stadium in April 7.