The DI Men's Club Championship Final, won 20-15 by the host Glendale Raptors at Infinity Park Sunday, provided the drama a championship match is supposed to.
The game was never out of reach for either side, at times both Olympic Club and Glendale looked like they had the momentum it'd take to separate, and players sporting both the horizontal blue stripes and the winged O made hair-raising plays.
The first half provided few points, but had the look of a grappling match between two highly skilled heavyweights.
Olympic Club pressured immediately after the opening kickoff, driving inside Glendale's five-meter line with a series of quickly recycled balls and strong runs, but a mishandled pass stalled momentum and forced a turnover, which nearly resulted in a Glendale try.
Raptor fullback Dewon Reed, the star of Glendale's 51-10 semifinal win over the Boston Irish Wolfhounds, had nothing but green in front of him following the O-Club turnover, but he knocked on a pass that could have put him in for a score, ending the threat. This would be the first of many knock-ended scoring threats.
Glendale got on the board first when Olympic Club was pinged for the match's first penalty. Ata Malifa slotted the kick.
Olympic Club stole the ensuing kickoff, forcing Glendale into a panic and a penalty, allowing O-Club flyhalf Keegan Engelbrecht to draw the game level.
Glendale then again squandered a scoring chance, which was made possible by a bobbled Olympic Club pass, by throwing one of their own forward just five meters in front of pay dirt.
O-Club pulled ahead when Reed called mark after a clearance kick and the Raptors opted to tap and run instead of clear their lines. O-Club turned them over and were rewarded with a penalty kick after Glendale infringed in the process.
Reed, this time managing to secure possession, made his first big line break of the day, but when he deferred to a teammate, the ball eventually found its way into flanker Bradley Winbush's hands, and he was thrown into touch, ruining another try-scoring opportunity.
Glendale wouldn't leave O-Club's end of the field empty-handed, however, as prop Mike Tafel hit a difficult penalty from near midfield to level the score at 6-6. Tafel took over the kicking duties after a Malifa penalty sailed considerably errant.
"Haven’t kicked since the Malifa brothers came on, but I’ve kicked before with every team I’ve played before," said Tafel. "I haven’t kicked for 6 months until today and didn’t know I was going to have to until just before the game. But I’ve done it so many times before; it’s just like riding a bike."
Tafel's kicking would prove a factor in the overall equation, and his first penalty was impressive, having just enough power to clear the crossbar.
Glendale saw three more line breaks go unrewarded the next several minutes, and Olympic Club quietly crept up by two scores, both of them Englebrecht penalties, giving the San Francisco team a 12-6 lead. The first was at full time of the opening stanza, and the second was shortly after intermission.
O-Club then made its first big mistake, kicking to Reed and not tackling him.
"They got a lot of firepower in their backline," said O-Club coach Ray Lehner of Glendale. "We really had to contain it, and I don't know if you can keep the lid on that pot forever. They broke out a couple times and it hurt us."
Reed gained most of the yardage on the long try-scoring play, the first of the match, but wing Dustin Croy actually touched it down to secure the five points, or at least that's what referee Chris Henshall determined. Video review is inconclusive, but it appears Croy may have lost the ball before forcing it into the turf. Nonetheless, the points were awarded, and Tafel's conversion was made, giving Glendale a 13-12 advantage.
Eight minutes later, Croy finished off his second try of the day, also a long-range, backs-driven score, which Tafel converted to put the Raptors up 20-12.
Twice Engelbrecht had shots at post after that score. An inferior kicker may not have gone for points, but Engelbrecht did. Both missed. If either attempt had been successful, O-Club's fate may have been different.
The middle third of the field, worn down by bearing the brunt of the day's action, became the stage for a late-game slug fest. Thumping tackle after crushing ruck entertained the Infinity Park crowd for the final 15 minutes. Malifa delivered several of those thumps, including a pair that could have warranted a card for failure to wrap.
But it was Olympic Club's Carl Hansen, the former NFL defensive tackle, who would be binned. Hansen slammed his bulky elbow into Mike Kenyon, long after the No. 8 had kicked the ball, drawing a warranted yellow card in the 73rd minute which put him on the bench for the remainder of the match.
In the 78th minute, Engelbrecht hit a penalty of similar difficulty to those he'd missed earlier, drawing O-Club within an unconverted try. With 14 men, O-Club drove into Glendale's end of the field, but the personnel disadvantage proved insurmountable, and the final whistle blew with Glendale still ahead, making them the 2011 DI champs.
Reed, electrifying on the weekend, was named the game's MVP. He missed the Sweet 16 because he was confined to the state of Colorado by a court-issued ankle monitor stemming from driving with a suspended license. The monitor was taken off the week following the Sweet 16, but Reed felt as though he owed his teammates an MVP performance after being absent in Chula Vista, Calif.
"All the credit goes to my teammates and stepping up with a man down. They played two hard teams in the Provo Steelers and Belmont Shore and came out with a victory, got me here, got us all here, and we got the championship," he said.
"I threw the team on my shoulders, did everything the coaches told me. We knew Olympic Club was going to throw multiple defenders at me, but I have experience playing in that area with the Sacramento Lions. So I knew their game plan already, so my feeling was to get the ball and get it to the hands of our other fast guys and I knew we would win the game."