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Triton rugby puts cap on strong season

TUCSON, Ariz. — Iowa Central head coach Brent Nelson knows his squad had the look of a championship contender heading into the USA Rugby College 7s national championships.

It takes more than just talent to win it all, though. And while Nelson’s Tritons were right in the thick of the title hunt, they ultimately came up just short in placing a respectable third out of the 12-team Div. II bracket at Kino Sports Complex.

A bitter semifinal loss to North Carolina State — the same program that denied Iowa Central a chance at gold late last fall in the Div. II national 15s semifinals — kept the Tritons on the outside looking in when all was said and done last Sunday. Iowa Central did bounce back with a 29-26 victory over East Carolina, though, to secure bronze.

“We reached the semifinals and had a measure of revenge on our minds, so to speak, against NC State,” Nelson said. “We got up 15-0 at halftime, but they came back on us and we just didn’t close it out. You have to give them a ton of credit for fighting back when it looked like we were in control.”

The Wolfpack prevailed on the last play, 19-15, and advanced to the finals. NC State then closed out the national title with a victory over Wisconsin-Whitewater.

“I think we probably could’ve been considered the favorite heading into the tournament,” Nelson said. “We lost to UNC-Charlotte in pool play and were the No. 6 seed. The guys were disappointed, but it was all about surviving and making it to the next day. We did that.

“We beat Principia on the last play of the game (a free kick with no time left) to reach the semifinals, so we were riding a wave of momentum from that, but it just goes to show you have to catch some breaks and be at your best in every match to advance down here. There are so many evenly-matched teams, and we’re all fighting for a championship. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”

Nelson was proud of the way his players rallied to knock off the Pirates for third place.

“It showed our character and resilience,” Nelson said. “The kids follower our defensive strategy very well, and we created a lot of turnovers off of our pressure defense. The match wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.”

Iowa Central closed pool play with the tournament’s highest-scoring offense.

“We were just electric on offense early on,” Nelson said. “I really thought this was our tournament to lose. The NC State match was very intense and emotional, but again, they earned the win by coming back on us.”

Pierre Wansbury had 10 tries in the six games between pool and bracket play for the Tritons. Michael Wildin added four tries, while Aaron Krah contributed three.

Nelson lauded the efforts of his coaching staff — Jake Mizell, Skip Reed and Michael Hirst — as well as trainer Heather Trobec. He also pointed out the leadership of the program’s six sophomores, who were closing their careers at Iowa Central: Jordan Sanderson, Nathan Epplett, Jerviny Kamaya, Damion Wallace, Liam Becker and Wildin.

“I’m so thankful for how the sophomores have represented us both on and off the field,” Nelson said. “I love them. They were a pleasure to be around, and we’re going to really miss them.

“Our staff has been tremendous. Our kids have been tremendous. We are so fortunate to have these people representing our program and our school.”