Sullivan boots rugby to victory in waning seconds

by Jacob E. Osterhout | 10/23/01 5:00am

The Dartmouth men's rugby team has a way of playing to its opponent's level.

"We can hang with anyone," senior center Kevin Reavey said. "And anyone can hang with us. No game has been a blowout this season. I guess we like to make it hard on ourselves."

Dartmouth came into Saturday's game with a lot on the line. After losing to Army by four the weekend before, the ruggers needed to beat Norwich to keep their postseason hopes alive. "Every week we have always told ourselves that this was the biggest game of the season," co-captain Michael Linchitz '02 said. "But this game was definitely the biggest game of the season."

The Big Green ruggers rose to the occasion, fending off a spirited Norwich effort to earn a hard-fought 27-24 win at Sachem Field.

Dartmouth started the game off strong. For the first 10 minutes the team dominated possession, but failed to score due to a slew of dropped balls. Finally, after 15 minutes of holding their breath, the fans had something to cheer for. A four man line out confused Norwich and put the ball in sophomore second rower David Hodapp's hands. He set a ruck and two phases later flyhalf Matthew Sullivan '02 switched directions to put the ball back in Hodapp's hands as he dove into the try zone. Sullivan couldn't connect on the kick and Dartmouth took the first lead at 5-0.

But those were Dartmouth's last points in the first half. Suddenly, the team lost composure. "Physically we are where we need to be," hooker James Joun '03 said. "But, mentally we can't keep it together. We lapse and let other teams squirt ahead of us."

In a reverse of the game's previous trend, Norwich started dominating territory. Poor tackling and a general lackluster effort on defense had Dartmouth on its heels. With a ruck set on the goal line, Norwich drew in the left side of the Big Green defense and spun the ball out wide for an easy try. Then, on the impending kick, Norwich flew down the field again and put the ball in the hands of their winger who walked in to score two trys in seven minutes. As the halftime whistle blew, the score stood at 14-5 in favor of the military academy.

"Normally, when we start losing, we can snap out of it," eight-man Doug Heitner '02 said. "But this time we just kept falling deeper and deeper into our funk. It got to the point where we were just waiting for the halftime whistle to blow."

"I came out at halftime and tried to rally the troops," head coach Alex Magleby '00 said. "Normally, I am a soft-spoken guy, but I gave them hell. I figured they needed a kick in the butt, a reminder that this was the season and they were casually watching it slip through their fingers."

But, for all the yelling, for all the fan support, for all the incentive to win, Dartmouth still came out flat in the second half. Missed tackles, dropped balls and penalties marred Dartmouth's continuity and gave Norwich another try to set the score at 19-5.

"I think we all just expected to come out and turn it around in the second half," second rower James Colligan '02 said. "And when it didn't happen we realized that we were going to actually have to do something about it, like score a few trys."

And so they did. Dartmouth regained possession and the back line found their hands once again. After multiple phases, Sullivan switched directions and passed the ball to Reavey who found Michael Martinez '03. Martinez broke a few tackles as he water-bugged his way into the try zone. Sullivan converted this kick and now Dartmouth was only behind by seven.

Within five minutes, Dartmouth was on the attack once again. Formerly suspended winger Gabriel Doleac '03 broke down the sideline and chip-kicked to set up a ruck. Quick hands out through the line put the ball back in Martinez's possession and, in usual fashion, he avoided defenders on his way to the try zone. With the conversion Dartmouth had tied the game and the suddenly the momentum was in the home team's favor.

But, the Big Green couldn't seal the deal. Norwich took the ball off a line out and flung it out to their winger, who turned the corner and outran the entire Dartmouth team to touch the ball down in the try zone. The conversion was no good and Norwich lead by five with ten minutes remaining in the game.

"Ten minutes is eternity on a rugby field," prop Jeremy Lepage '02 said.

Off a 22-meter kick Dartmouth grabbed the ball when Hodapp took out the opposing hooker. Heitner took the ball and passed to Reavey, who streaked his way down the sideline to tie the score at 24.

As time ran down, Dartmouth had multiple opportunities to win the game, but the details always aligned against them. Poor spacing and bad hands kept the Big Green from scoring until Sullivan received a penalty kick with zero seconds remaining. As the crowd held its collective breath, Sullivan hooked the ball inside the left upright and Dartmouth walked off the pitch with a three-point triumph.

"There are two aspects to this game," Chris Lentz '02 said. "We either didn't have enough heart to put this game away or we had so much heart that we came back and won it at the last second. I think we sit somewhere in between the two. It was a tough game to play and even tougher to think about."

Coach Magleby added: "This was the third match of the season that has come down to the last minute. This time the DRFC was able to pull off the victory, but we are still not in true form. We have lots of potential and many good moments, but we are not an 80-minute championship caliber team yet. Hopefully a week of hard practicing will take us to the next level."

The Dartmouth ruggers maintain their playoff hopes as they travel down to Providence next week to take on a much-improved Brown squad.

Jacob Osterhout is a scrum half on the Dartmouth Men's Rugby Club.

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