The Blues were under pressure even before the match started, and the situation only worsened after kickoff. According to Blues Head Coach, Markus Valovalo, his team went into the match without either of its captains, Ed Mills and Lloyd Saunders. Impact player Gannon Moore was also absent from the team’s lineup Saturday. To top it all off, Kevin Schwartze, one of the Blues’ main weapons at the restart, heard a pop in his ankle and went off after the third minute of the match. From there the Blues put in some new bodies, adjusted the day’s game plan and prepared to claw back into the match.
“We knew we had to roll our sleeves up and will ourselves to a win,” Valovalo said. “Down 21-3, early in the second half, I made some changes to our play and had us play tighter lines. We have a new fly half and our backs were having an unusually poor day with their hands. Up by only three with two to go, we repelled Cincinnati 13 phases in a row right on our goal line.”
The Blues’ defensive structure decided the match from start to finish. When the players didn’t execute, the Wolfhounds put in three unanswered tries, but when they were on point the Blues prevented the opposition from taking the win and kept the try line safe. According to Valovalo, the defensive scheme is a simple but effective one and has remained unchanged after last year’s championship run.
“With our offense spluttering, it was our defense that got us a W,” he said. “I spoke to the boys about how our season ended in the spring to Mystic River in the round of eight at nationals. Up by 15 with 10 minutes to go, we lost our composure and it cost us dearly. I explained to them that it’s a new season and we get to go out and right a wrong. We have to be ruthless this year.”
Defense doesn’t run itself, though, and it took a combination of seasoned players and brand new Blues working in concert to achieve success on Saturday.
“I handed a debut to Clay Beckman, an Iowa standout who had an outstanding first game in the Blues jersey,” Valovalo said. “Walt Elder, flanker, is new to the 15s scene, having played 7s for most of the last two summers. He was part of our ’14 team that finished third in the nation and, more recently, for the Denver Elite team that won Serevi RugbyTown Sevens. At 23, he has got everything ahead of him and we expect big things. Stephen Lomas, a product of our Sporting Academy, has found his stride in the hooker role. Barely two hundred pounds, he’s as strong as an ox and has really lifted his play at set piece time. Still in his early 20s, I could see him possibly getting some rep call-ups soon.”
Kelly Mercer, the fullback-turned-scrumhalf, utilized his field vision kicking ability to help boost his team to a win Saturday. Mercer was able to convert five of his six attempts from the tee, securing points that could have been the difference-makers for his team’s final result. According to Valovalo, Mercer is possibly the best at his position in the entire territory. If that weren’t enough, Valovalo expects to bring up at least 10 of the players from his Division II team at some point in the season as well.
The Wolfhounds made life difficult for the Blues as the match wore on, especially in the lineouts. Cincinnati ran a five-man arrangement and took advantage of the Blues’ weakness in defending that phase of the game. In an effort to nullify the Blues’ speed on the side, the Wolfhounds popped kicks just over the defensive line to get some offensive yards from the boot.
“It was a wake-up call, for sure,” Valovalo said. “After some favorable results against the Wolfhounds last season, I think some guys might’ve been thinking we would show up and they’d roll over for us. Credit to their staff and squad because they had done their homework and look primed for a big year. One shoddy bounce of the ball and we could’ve lost. It was testament to how much the Wolfhounds have improved. They’re a team on the up.”
Despite being last year’s champions, the Blues still have much work to do. While other teams are primarily looking to get better to take out the team on top, the Blues have to stave off complacency as well as the rest of the Midwest.
“Saturday was week one of a nine-week league schedule with no breaks,” Valovalo said. “Whatever we were last year isn’t who we are this year, and if we want to go back to back as league champs it’ll take everyone bringing their best stuff week in, week out.”
To that end, Valovalo said the chemistry between some of his backs needs to get smoother for future matches. Patience and ball handling were issues for the Blues on Saturday as well. Going forward, the Kansas City side can’t afford to get ahead of itself and leave points on the table. Every improvement made by the Blues is in pursuit of one singular goal: win the league again and go deep at Nationals.
“Everything we’re doing with preparation and game planning is to that end – win the league, go deep at Nationals,” Valovalo said.
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