Article by: Alex Hogenhuis
“I don’t ask for greatness, only the opportunity to show that I am great,” Jackson Yang ’17 thundered over the hostile jeers of the home fans moments before kick off in last Sunday’s regional playoff between the Middlebury College Rugby Club (MCRC) and Plymouth State University. “Take today to prove to each other just how great you can be, prove just how good you are.”
It was not the first time that he had delivered this speech. Three weeks earlier, Yang shared his drive and vision during the warm-up before the MCRC’s second game against the University of New Hampshire. At that point in the season the MCRC was 1-4, a playoff berth was off the table, and any speeches were less of an affirmation of the team’s ability and more of a demand that the team play to its potential.
And potential they had. Coming into the season, Middlebury seemed to be a favorite the win the division. With the skilled duo of Jake Feury ’16.5 and Jackson Yang , the blistering speed of USA Maccabi Team selection Adam Markun ‘17, and a mix of experienced veterans and young talent, the MCRC seemed poised to dominate the New England Collegiate Rugby Conference (NECRC) and secure a place in Division II National Playoffs .
However, until the fateful game in New Hampshire, the team had fallen flat. A shocking 34-12 loss to Norwich University was followed by losses to The University of Rhode Island (URI) and The University of Vermont (UVM). The only consolation was a 59-3 victory against University of New Hampshire. Sitting one spot above last place left little else to be cherished. Club leaders began giving speeches about “playing for pride” and “not giving up on the season”, clear signs that any sliver of hope was quickly fading.
Too often clichéd metaphors are used to describe the ‘turning point’ in a season. But in the huddle before the second game at UNH, Jackson Yang’s speech sparked a transformation the hearts of his teammates. They were even more inspired to strive for glory, for streams of confetti, for golden trophies. More importantly they were inspired play for each other and show just what they were capable of.
With this newly ignited fire in their hearts, the MCRC began a systematic breakdown of UNH that ended in a 77-12 victory. The wide margin of this victory opened a slim possibility for a playoff berth and a chance for the Panthers to reclaim their season. In order to do so, the Panthers would need to win their final rematches against UVM and URI. In another fortuitous turn of events, former coach and owner of the Marquis Ben Wells returned to the MCRC to provide invaluable insight into forging a championship team.
With newfound hope, the MCRC began a relentless build towards playoff contention. Despite losing to UVM by a mere two points in their last encounter, tries from Markun, Yang, and Feury helped propel the Panthers to a hard-fought 19-12 victory
After this phenomenal win, the MCRC set their sights on URI. In order to secure their playoff hopes, the Panthers were obliged to win by a margin of no less than 8 points. The Panthers took the field on a frigid Friday afternoon and rose to the occasion admirably, routing URI 42-13 and achieving a playoff run that once seemed impossible.
Given all they had gone through in the past three weeks to reach this game at Plymouth, Jackson Yang’s speech took on a new light. “Proving to each other how great you can be” was no longer a statement of unjustified superiority. It was no longer a call for performance that reflected the team’s true potential. It had become a reminder of the Herculean trials that the team had overcome to breathe new life into the season. Moreover, the speech exemplified the point that that when the chips are down good teammates don’t play for themselves. They play for each other.
The MCRC had just two days to prepare for its playoff game against Plymouth State in New Hampshire. It quickly became clear that this would be one of the season’s hardest challenges for the Panthers. After gaining an early 13-0 lead thanks to a try and two penalty kicks from Feury, Plymouth rallied and tied the game at 19 with ten minutes remaining. Fortunately an interception by Kyle Dickey ’17 started a drive that ended with a game-winning try that cemented a place for the Panthers at the Division II National Playoffs in Pittsburgh this weekend.
The Panthers’ first game at Nationals will be on Nov. 19 against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the best Division II rugby team in the country. Although Middlebury is not favoured, overcoming Goliath seems a possibility for a club way determined to fly in the face of long odds. When discussing the MCRC, rugby pundit Alex Goff succinctly stated that you “got to love a team that won’t give up”. Indeed, aspiring to greatness is a dream the players of the Middlebury College Rugby Club will not be giving up during this weekend and beyond.