They were down 14-0 at halftime and 21-0 with just minutes remaining in the game, but with unrelenting defensive pressure and some spectacular play, the men of High Country came back with a vengeance and beat Macon Love 22-21 to advance to the Matrix Final.
The whistles came fast and came often on Saturday afternoon, with High Country mired in penalties all game and even losing forward John Harley and fly half Troy Albright, their captain, to yellow cards during the match. Macon was even awarded a penalty try when the ref determined that High Country had been offsides on too many occasions near the try line. That try put the Love up 21-0, but it would be their final score of the game.
“At that point, I thought we may just be playing for pride, the love of the game and our fans that showed up for us,” admitted head coach Mitch Jaffe. “I learned an old lesson in a new way: Never under estimate the magic of a rugby team when 1 through 15 get on the same page and share one brain and goal.”
After scoring an earlier try to get on the board, High Country’s offense kicked into high gear. Kevin “K Stew” Stewart chased down a kick from Albright and touched it down to add another five points and fullback Danny Coreas bulldozed through a defender from short range to add another five to the scoreboard, making it 21-17.
With the clock starting to wind down, Macon attempted an ill-advised drop goal that went (very) wide of the uprights, and after a scrum High Country was able to get the ball into the hands of Stewart and he made magic happen, beating three defenders down the sideline to score the try that put High Country on top for the first time all afternoon.
“We won because we survived two sin bins without giving up any points and because K Stew is really fast,” said Albright. “We showed a ton of heart and came away with one of the best wins in recent memory.”
Eight man and forwards captain TJ Rhine could only describe Stewart’s run as “heart stopping.”
After breaking free from a second man, half of High Country’s sidelines went running down the pitch with Stewart.
“It was definitely one of the best performances I’ve ever seen [Stewart] have on the rugby field,” Rhine added.
For his part, Stewart says as soon as he got the ball it was over for Macon.
“There’s no question, if I have two guys to beat I feel like I’m gonna score every time,” he said. “If it’s three or more, I feel I’m still gonna get a pretty good distance…Initially I got the ball and I saw one person, that was their outside center. I wasn’t even looking at him because I already knew I was gonna get by him. I was just looking downfield to see what I was gonna do next.”
What he did next was score and he was mauled in the try zone by half of his team and a number of excited spectators.
“One or two people to beat,” said Stewart, his swag fully turned on, “I’m not worried about that at all.”
The try put High Country up 22-21, the score that would be the game’s final.
“I have seen little bits of brilliance from this group,” said Jaffe “Sometimes it shows up in 3-5 minute spurts, maybe 10. On Saturday, they were the best rugby team in the south for 15 minutes, and I mean any division.”
The win propelled High Country into a showdown with Valdosta State, a team that beat them earlier in the season by a hefty margin, for the championship.
The team celebrated their win at their home bar where an upper-level member of the staff may or may not have dipped his testicles in Bacardi 151 and lit them on fire.
That event got the team’s heads in the right place.
“I just hope everybody forgets about Saturday, starting tomorrow, and focuses on next week,” said Stewart, who was named High Country’s Man of the Match, but embarrassingly lost the drink-off at the bar. “I’m just proud of the way everyone stuck together, from the people that was on the field to everyone on the sideline. There was never a moment where we felt like we were too far out the game.”