The University of Central Florida scored a last-second try to upset Lindenwood 27-25 in dramatic fashion and win the DI-AA National Championship Sunday in Bowling Green, Ohio.
The Knights’ squad was made up entirely of volunteer American student-athletes not on a rugby scholarship, and it showed in their skills. The Knights’ passing wasn’t as crisp as Lindenwood’s, and UCF’s kicking game was practically non-existent, but the Knights grounded and pounded their way to the program’s first-ever National Title.
“We don’t kick the ball, so I asked them not to kick the ball and they didn’t,” said UCF coach Jason Granich of his players. “The game plan was simple – stick to what we do. We’re great defenders, and our forwards just get go-forward ball, and they just run hard and straight all day.”
Central Florida charged down an attempt at a clearance kick from Lindenwood’s Mickey Bateman deep in his own end. A couple of phases and a Lindenwood penalty later, scrumhalf Max Roehm dove over to put the Knights up 5-0. Roehm hit the point-blank conversion, making it 7-0.
Lindenwood got into UCF’s end directly following the restart, but the Lions were stifled by a swarming UCF defense. The Knights conceded a penalty right in front of the posts after several phases, and Lindenwood fullback Morgan Findlay slotted the penalty.
Morgan Findlay scored again minutes later, this time diving in for a try. He sliced right through the defense, which he’s done countless times this season, but he was effectively neutralized most of the game thereafter. Hobbled by an injury sustained in an early tackle, and by UCF’s refusal to kick him the ball, Lindenwood’s most potent weapon and best player was mostly a non-factor with ball in hand.
UCF controlled the ball most of the next several minutes, but their forward runs on the fringe and pick-and-jams didn’t yield much yardage. Lions center James Poli then managed to rip possession from a UCF ball carrier and put Lindenwood on the offensive. The Knights committed a penalty, and Findlay slotted another three points.
UCF immediately penetrated Lindenwood’s defense following the kickoff and got over the try line, but the Knights were held up in-goal. The Knights won the ensuing scrum, but Lindenwood openside flanker Tyler Black sniffed out the No. 8 pick and poached the ball. The Lions never got out of their end, and the Knights were eventually rewarded with a shot at goal. Roehm converted it, pulling UCF to within one at 11-10.
UCF got the ball back again and reverted to 10-man rugby, but they did it midfield and not in Lindenwood’s territory. So when they lost possession, Lindenwood was instantly in attacking position. The Lions played a wide ball off a ruck to Poli, and he dished inside to a streaking Matty Harris, the fastest player on the field, who ran untouched between the posts. Findlay converted, putting Lindenwood up 18-10 halftime.
UCF’s constant body punching finally paid off about 15 minutes into the second half when captain and No. 8 Gerhart Veit crashed over the try line. Conversion missed, the try pulled the Knights to within three at 18-15.
Lindenwood pushed the lead back out to two possessions by opening the game up. They sent it from one touch line to the other with just three passes, and hooker Cody Schwahn cut against the grain to score near the posts. Findlay slotted the conversion, making it 25-15 to UCF.
The Knights didn’t quit, though, and they got the ball to speedy wing Lee Soprenuk with some room to run for the first time in the game. He was cut down by Findlay after a big carry, but Lindenwood’s defense was on its heels. Veit carried the ball twice, offloading each time, before getting the ball back again and diving over for his second score of the game. The conversion was made, cutting the deficit to three.
With under two minutes to play, Lindenwood was penalized near the UCF 22-meter line. The Knights, having needed many phases and a lot of time to score most of their tries thus far, needed a booming kick to turn field position around. The kick didn’t make touch, and Lindenwood’s reserve wing fielded it. Soprenuk made a massive hustle play by chasing the kick and forcing the wing into touch, giving UCF an attacking lineout, nonetheless.
“If he doesn’t get down there and hit that winger, we don’t get that lineout,” said Granich of Soprenuk. “If we don’t get that lineout, we don’t get the win.”
The Knights, now hovering around the attacking 22, went back to their forward running, and their captain, as he had earlier, carried the ball twice deep inside Lindenwood territory. On his second run, about five meters from the line, he floated a pass just over the outstretched fingers of Lindenwood’s Matty Harris and into the hands of wing James Boozer, who caught the ball and scooted the short distance into the try zone for the game-winning try.
“When our scrummy started heading into the ruck, I started screaming for it because they were on their heels there a little bit,” said Veit, describing the final play. “I almost tried to take it in myself, but I did see their winger was playing on the inside a little bit more and our winger was on the outside, and I threw it out there and it worked out, man.”
UCF, the team that resorted to social media to fund raise their way to Bowling Green, the only team in the Final Four without a paid coach, the only team in the Final Four without a foreign player, beat Varsity Lindenwood for the DI-AA National Championship.
“We’ve been labeled underdogs, the stepchildren. Hopefully we’ve hushed all the critics by the results,” said Granich. “We don’t have the money, we don’t have the resources, but we have a National Championship.”