Kings of the Mountain: Upper Valley Rugby Club Wins New England Title

  • Upper Valley Rugby Club's Tim Puzio breaks through the Black River defense in the New England Rugby Football Union Division IV championship game on Oct. 28 in Rutland, Vt. Upper Valley won, 33-5. (Upper Valley Rugby Club photograph)

  • Darius Long, front, and the Upper Valley Rugby Club celebrate last month's New England Rugby Football Union Division IV championship in Rutland. (Upper Valley Rugby Club photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Lebanon — After its inaugural New England Rugby Football Union season ended under less-than-ideal circumstances in 2016, the Upper Valley Rugby Club entered this year determined to make a statement to both itself and the league.

Did it ever.

Showcasing athleticism and commitment, the Mountain Men shredded through an 8-0 campaign in NERFU’s Division IV while outscoring opponents, 370-52. After it earned a bye following a 6-0 regular season, Upper Valley edged Boston Ironsides in the semifinals, 19-12, and beat rival Black River, 33-5, in the championship game at West Rutland’s Gawet Memorial Field on Oct. 28 to celebrate its first league title.

It was far more satisfying than they way things ended last year, when the Mountain Men were disqualified from the tournament because of a paperwork error that inadvertently led to an unregistered player seeing game time. Subsequently, the club was denied by NERFU administrators in a request to move up to D-III, the next step for Upper Valley to increase its reach.

“We played this year with a chip on our shoulder, no question,” said team captain Zac Conaway, who previously played for several teams while enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Drum, N.Y. “We wanted to show that we were better than what we felt we were made out to be last season. We expected to be in the championship game. We didn’t know for sure that we’d win it, but that was the goal from the start.”

For coach, player and administrator Brian Frampton, the success didn’t come as a surprise.

“To be honest, I thought we’d be right where we ended up,” he said. “With the amount of talent and experience that we have as a group, and the type of season we had last year, I knew we’d be better.”

Comprised of many who played collegiately or recreationally, the Mountain Men’s devotion to this season began last winter, when they staged indoor touch sessions at Lebanon Middle School. The practices kept players’ skills honed and helped spark interest for several newcomers.

With six beginners on the roster and a philosophy by coaches to focus on fundamentals, much of the Mountain Men’s practice time was devoted to essentials such body position, tackling and ball handling.

“There was a lot of training and preparation to build a skill set we knew we could take advantage of during the regular season, and everybody was all in on that approach,” said Conaway, a co-coach with Frampton. “We did some fun stuff, too, some lighter drills, but everyone knew we were building toward the season.”

Upper Valley’s progress was evident during a preseason game against Amoskeag, a Manchester-based Division II unit that had scored 160 points in a lopsided win over the Mountain Men in a 2016 exhibition. This year, Amoskeag won just 32-25, and Upper Valley also fared well against D-III Burlington, Mad River/Stowe and other seasoned teams over the spring and summer.

After a week one bye, Upper Valley won 57-3 at Rutland in its season opener and 69-12 the following week at Bennington. The Mountain Men’s on-field strategies were working to a T in the heat of September.

“A big part of rugby is maintaining possession and protecting the ball, and we were able execute a lot of set plays that allowed us to do that,” said Darius Long, a former Williams College player. “Guys like (first-year Mountain Man and former Colby College player) Jack Sears had great ideas for when to use set plays.

“On defense, we learned we were best when we ran up to the line together so there were no gaps.”

Success continued during a two-game homestand on the field behind the former Lebanon Junior High School, first on Sept. 30 with a 57-0 trouncing of Boston Ironsides. The following week, Upper Valley doubled up its closest geographic rival, Ludlow, Vt.-based Black River, in a physical 34-17 win.

The Mountain Men returned to the road in mid October to play in soggy conditions at Cape Cod, leaving Sandwich, Mass., with a mucky 73-3 win.

“The field was an unmowed cow pasture, and it had been raining for hours and hours before the game,” Long said. “It was a rough combination.”

Upper Valley received another bye when would-be regular season finale opponent Berkshire forfeited, and the Mountain Men’s top seeding meant they would sit out the quarterfinal round in West Rutland as well.

Overmatched in Lebanon a month prior, Boston Ironsides came out vigorously in the teams’ rematch in the semifinals, scoring first to give Upper Valley its only deficit of the year, 7-0.

“They were a different team than we’d seen earlier in the season, and we expected that,” Conaway said. “Everyone is much more seasoned by the tournament.”

Long felt the team may have come out a bit overhyped.

“We were pretty ramped up,” said Long. “We had beaten all of the remaining teams (after the quarterfinals), and I think we had a lot of nervous energy. Then going down (on the scoreboard) was another psychological hurdle.”

Long and Taylor Harned scored tries to help Upper Valley lead 14-12 at halftime, and the defense held steady in the second half to aid a 19-12 triumph.

Matched up with Black River in the final, the Mountain Men prevailed more convincingly than they had during the regular season. After a crash-ball try by Conaway early on, Tim Puzio sparked Upper Valley with a kick return for a score. In the second half, another Puzio try helped ice a 33-5 win and the team’s first crown.

“It’s significant, because we put a lot of hard work, commitment and heart into our team this year. I’m proud of the teamwork and effort we achieved this year,” Conaway said.

Upper Valley Rugby plans to once again request a move up to D-III for next season and, barring the unforeseen, should be granted the switch by NERFU this time around.

“Moving up will help us continue to grow our team, take on more challenging opponents and expand our presence as a new, up-and-coming team,” Conaway said.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.