A lot about Minnesota-Duluth’s championship run was impressive. The Fighting Penguins outscored Salisbury and UW-Whitewater 70-12 in the championship and semifinal games, respectively, allowing just one score a contest. And the try Duluth conceded to Salisbury was controversial, as it appeared inside center Logan Hanson may have grounded the ball in the try zone, which would have resulted in a 22-meter dropout, instead of a Salisbury try.
Duluth had some big units on the field. No. 8 Jake Luetgers camped out in the backline and busted off some penetrating runs. Loosehead prop Derrek Van Kline had a lot of hard carries tighter to the ruck. Hanson was a load to bring down when at full pace.
But some of the smaller Penguins were just as effective. Outside center Austin Haercher took advantageous angles off multiple set pieces to score tries. Flanker Luke Desroches and wing Sam Torvinen made some in roads, too. But the smaller player who had the biggest impact on the championship game was hooker and captain Blake Martin.
Martin led from the front with a high work rate, but his ability to absorb Salisbury’s hardest hits and bounce right back off the turf was inspirational. In a matter of about 90 seconds, Martin was licked twice. First, Scott Wheeler, who was the heart and soul of Salisbury’s defense, delivering massive hits all weekend, drilled Martin on a restart. The Duluth captain held onto the ball, recycled it, and kept playing. Shortly thereafter, Martin passed and was hit late, and very hard, by Salisbury hooker David Burnett. The play resulted in Burnett being sin-binned. Martin was energized by it, egging on the Duluth crowd, and letting Salisbury, and his teammates, know he was unfazed.
“When I get hit hard I just get pumped up even more, so I was completely fine with that,” said Martin. “Our team just likes to hit hard, so that was the perfect game for us.”
“He’s not the biggest guy on the pitch, but he plays a lot bigger than the size that he is,” said Duluth coach Jeramy Katchuba of Martin.
“That leadership is huge, to say basically, 'I just took the best you have to offer and I’m going to ignore it and just plug away onto the next phase.' I think that was a big statement, and I think Salisbury is probably used to being a lot more physical than most other teams, and we did a good job of matching that on Sunday, which may be a little bit different for them.”
Duluth’s physicality was perhaps most apparent in the scrum. The Fighting Penguins demoralized Salisbury at every pack down. They walked in one try off a scrum and were awarded a penalty try after Salisbury collapsed another. Combined with two walk-in tries against Whitewater on Saturday, the performance made Duluth’s scrum the talk of Greenville, SC.
“I didn’t think we would be as effective as we were this weekend,” Katchuba said.
Van Klein started at flanker for the Penguins last season, and he was injured almost the entire fall. He debuted at prop in Duluth’s final regular season game, and then played in the Rounds of 16 and eight, so he had just three games under his belt at a new position coming into the Final Four, giving Katchuba reason to believe his scrum might be so dominating.
“Leg day’s my favorite day. Leg day and core. We keep our bodies in tip-top shape and keep our scrums tight and low,” said Van Klein in an attempt to explain his seamless transition to the front row.
“Our second rows, they give us a lot of drive. They are putting a lot of pressure on us props. We have a good cadence, too.”
Andy Godeen and Andrew Buntrock manned the engine room for Duluth almost the entire weekend. They relished every scrum and the chance to sap the energy from Salisbury’s and Whitewater’s forward packs.
“Our front row sets a good base for them and they were doing a great job driving through, for basically 160 minutes over two days,” said Katchuba of his locks. “We pride ourselves in our fitness level, and Godeen played two full matches as a second row, and when you’re scrummaging that much and you’re doing that well, that’s a lot of work.”
A lot had been made of Duluth’s penchant for 10-man rugby since the Penguins emerged on the national scene last season. The Penguins are known, and rightfully so, for their ability to work through their forwards for an exceptional amount of phases. They did that this weekend, not deviating from their preferred style of play. Occasionally the ball would move wide on a designed play from a set piece, or through flyhalf Trace Bolstad’s hands, but most of Duluth’s territory and advantage was gained in the forwards.
“The whole season people have been saying we’re one dimensional, so we just kept doing what we do the entire season until someone can stop us from doing it,” said Martin, proudly. “We started with that mindset, let’s pound it down their throat and see if they can stop us, and it obviously worked.”
In South Carolina, Duluth’s players and supporters were sporting a shirt with the word redemption scrawled on it. They had run through the season undefeated last fall and spring before losing to Salisbury in the National Championship final. This year, they were playing to avenge that loss, all along fully expecting to do so.
“Right after we lost [to Salisbury], we knew we could have won. We knew we made small little mistakes here and there, and right after that game I told the guys, ‘I swear to God we’re going to beat that team next year. We’re going to take it,’ and everyone believed in that,” said Martin. “We all knew we had what we needed to take the championship, so everyone on the team was just extremely driven to win. Everyone worked their asses off the entire season.”
“We weren’t going to lose – that was the mindset. We went into [Sunday’s final] and we told ourselves that we’re not losing this year,” added Van Klein. “That bus ride home was just terrible last year.”
And the bus ride home this year?
“It was long, but we were champions,” Van Klein said.
There might be another happy trip in Duluth's future, as the Penguins graduate just one starter from the championship squad.