Southern Pines hosted teams from as far west as New Orleans and south as Miami for the Southern Conference Championship.
12 teams from three division, 2 mens and 1 womens fought for three berths into the USA Rugby national playoffs round of 8. Saturday, Southern Pines soundly defeated New Orleans 71-12 setting up a rematch Sunday with Atlanta who defeated Birmingham 41-24 with two late scores.
Southern Pines got off to a quick start against New Orleans and never took their foot off the gas.
Travis Matagi started the scoring 10 minutes into the game for a 5-0 lead. Shawn Riley added one of his signature tries for a 12-0 lead. New Orleans wasn’t ready to give up yet and took advantage of a number of Southern Pines mistakes to cut the lead to 12-7 about 25 minutes into the half.
Then the flood gates opened. Taylor Norfleet and Jone Koronihagana added tries to extend the lead to 24-7. Jeffery Hexom added a try converted by Zach Miller to go up 31-7 with time running out on the half, but Sione Latu Sake barreled down the sideline for 40 meters and a 36-7 halftime lead.
The second half started with a try by Trey Eason and the Greg Bajuk to go up 50-7. New Orleans added a try to cut the lead to 50-12.
Then Sione added his second of the day as well as Trey to go up 64-12, and Emerson Bessell added a try at the end of the match for the final score 71-12. The day was not without loss as the club lost starters Chris Skinner, Josh Dunleavy and Jone Koronihagana to an assortment of injury.
Southern Pines versus Atlanta promised to be a barn burner, and it lived up to everything you would hope for in a championship match.
Shawn Riley for Southern Pines scored first, but Atlanta answered with two tries of their own to take a 5-10 lead. Both teams were hitting hard and playing well not yielding an inch.
Southern Pines scored to tie it up at 10-10, and Robert Bortins added a try to take the lead 15-10, and then Atlanta hit a penalty kick to make it 15-13 going into halftime.
The second half matched the intensity of the first, with both teams going back and forth answering scores and with 5 minutes left, Southern Pines was down 22-23.
Southern Pines had the ball and Emerson Bessell did a perfect cross field kick to Cormac Kenan who ran it under the post for a 29-23 lead with 2 minutes remaining. On the pursuing kick off, a forward pass by Southern Pines turned the ball over to Atlanta who took their opportunity and put in a try with no time left to advance to the round of 8 with the 29-30 victory.
Southern Pines rugby took on the challenge of playing in a higher division and finished in the top 16 in the country for the third year in a row. Finishing the season with a 15-2 record, with both losses occurring with no time left on the clock.
Southern Pines and the extending area have about 80,000 people in it, and the team was able to post victories against teams like Charlotte, New Orleans, Raleigh and Atlanta. The team will take a week off and then turn its focus to the 7s season.
New athletes welcome, no experience needed, visit www.southernpinesrugby.org for more information.
Article written by Robert Bortins, Sandhills Sentinel Contributor.
Photo contributed by Southern Pines Rugby Club.