“Come on Slugs, let’s hit somebody,” shouted junior number five lock Noah Stid, all 6 feet and 5 inches and 245 pounds of him. With two minutes left on the clock and UC Santa Cruz only down by one try, Stid yelled out this battle cry, hoping it would be enough to fire up his teammates to get one more score before the game ended.
“It was a dogfight out there today. It was a really rough game,” Stid said.
Stid and the rest of the team hit and scrapped with everything they had as they tried to regain possession of the ball in the final 90 seconds, but they couldn’t manage to close the final gap. UCSC fell to the University of Nevada, Reno Wolfpack by just one try, 39-32. The loss eliminated the Slugs from the playoffs and put an end to their season earlier than they had hoped.
“This game is not easy,” said head coach Robby Bellue. “Three weeks ago we had finals and last week we couldn’t really train because of the rain. The lack of fitness showed today.”
UCSC came out flat in the first half against the Wolfpack and gave up an early 5-0 lead. Backpedaling, the Slugs were on the defensive side of the ball more than they wanted to be. Despite the Wolfpack outplaying them for the majority of the first half, they only carried a 15-14 lead into halftime.
“We were on our back foot the whole first half,” said team president and junior loosehead prop Thomas Beeman.
In the second half, the Slugs came out of the gates with a lot more energy, and took a 17-15 lead on a penalty kick by Beeman with 34 minutes left. The Wolfpack then went on a run around the 20-minute mark of the second half. They were able to score a few uncontested tries, putting the game just out of reach despite their valiant comeback effort in the game’s final minutes.
Numerous UCSC players and coaches referenced spring break, rain and the strike as factors leading to the team’s lack of preparation on Saturday. However, head coach Jeremy Sanford and junior Noah Stid agreed that the team still took full responsibility for the loss.
“We don’t want to make excuses. Reno came out here and played a hell of a game,” Stid said.
These two teams know each other very well. UCSC knocked the Wolfpack out of the playoffs last season and beat them by double digits earlier this year. On Saturday, the Wolfpack brought the intensity necessary to end their recent drought against the Slugs.
The play was incredibly physical from start to finish. With nine minutes left in the first half, two Wolfpack players collided and smashed heads while making a tackle, and one of them sat up from the pile with blood spilling down from his forehead.
“Rugby is a really rough game — sometimes there’s blood,” Stid said. “I’ve broken my nose three times this year.”
UCSC didn’t lose the game because they weren’t tough enough — they matched the Wolfpack the whole game in physicality and aggressiveness. Rather, most players agreed they lost because of a few uncharacteristic mistakes made on both sides of the ball.
“The loss is unfortunate, but regardless, all I asked of the guys was to play hard and they did. I’m really proud of how far this club has come,” said senior flanker and captain Edgar Portillo. “My freshman year we were Division II and couldn’t make playoffs. Last year we were one game away from nationals, and this year we were competitive as well. This team is in good hands for the future.”
While Portillo won’t be back next season, the team will boast an impressive and experienced squad with more than 10 seniors on the roster. Head coaches Robby Bellue and Jeremy Sanford will be back as well — as long as the team wants them — as it’s a club sport and ultimately up to the players to choose their coaches.
Team president and junior loosehead Thomas Beeman had nothing but praise for both of his coaches and the rest of the staff.
“The coaches are out of this world. They go above and beyond,” Beeman said. “They’ve got kids and they’re still there for practice at 6:45 a.m. twice a week. They’re there for all the evening practices too.”
When asked what the driving force would be for everyone to improve during the offseason, Sanford alluded to the team having “unfinished business.” Noah Stid said it’s Santa Cruz’s rich rugby tradition keeping him motivated to continue getting better and returning to this amazing yet physically punishing sport.
“I’m just so proud to be a part of this team — it has such deep roots,” Stid said. “Dan Porter’s ashes are buried beneath the field. He was one of the first players on the team.”
Stid, Beeman and the rest of the returning Slug players are done competing against other teams for the rest of this season, but the 47-year-old legacy of UCSC men’s rugby still lives on. During the offseason, the Slugs will be on the lower East Field hitting each other and practicing their passing, with the memories and tradition of Slug rugby growing in the grass beneath them.