Navy clinched first place in the Atlantic Coast Rugby League with a tense, and somewhat contentious 38-34 victory over previously-unbeaten Clemson in South Carolina.
Navy started well and appeared in control of the match into the second half, but the game was still closer than the others they have played in the ACRL. Used to scoring in the triple digits, the Midshipmen were sorely tested, and started to get into penalty trouble.
"It became a bit of a penalty fest," said a frustrated Navy Head Coach Mike Flanagan.
Repeated infractions by Navy - calls Flanagan called "suspect" - made their 38-19 second-half lead look not-so-secure.
Both teams missed opportunities early, the key play perhaps being a seeming Clemson try that was called back, leading eventually to a Navy try.
"That was a 14-point turnaround," said Clemson Head Coach Justin Hickey. "That hurt us."
Hit with penalties, Navy were ultimately down to 13 men thanks to two yellow cards within moments of each other. Without their hooker, Navy shifted their forwards around and kept playing, but during that time Clemson scored twice and were within a try at 38-34.
With time up, Clemson worked their way into the Navy half, but that one last pass to an open man didn't go to hand, and Navy escaped with the victory.
Clemson got big performances from tighthead prop Max Simons and No. 8 and captain Matt Setty, while in the backs Ben Coburn and Chris Merlo were outstanding.
For Navy, flyhalf Jack McAuliffe was brilliant, perhaps more so than usual, while Seamus Siefring was again a power-runner in the midfield. Flanker Andy Stellato slotted in at hooker when needed and helped the team handle at least one of the yellow cards.
"What I am most proud of is how the players kept playing, didn't complain to the referee, and handled it all, as I'd expect military academy players to do," said Flanagan. "They said 'OK, we're down to 13, fine, we'll play with 13 - we'll play with five if we have to.'"
Flanagan was all praise for Clemson, a hard-nosed team that, he was, was tactically smart and talented.
Hickey was pleased with his Tigers, as well.
"We played this game to win it, not to make it looks respectable," he said. "I thought our forwards really fronted up, and I was just really proud of the guys."
Clemson is still in the DI-AA playoffs and now sets their sights on their bracket later this month in Knoxville, Tenn.