The Sydney University American Football Club won its record 7th straight Waratah Bowl last Saturday. In a thrilling and nail-biting game, the Lions defeated the UTS Gators 34-26 at Forshaw Park to become the 2009 Gridiron NSW Champions with an unbeaten record of 12 wins and 0 losses.
The win also puts the Lions winning streak at an unprecedented 45 straight games, including 3 straight undefeated seasons. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon of football, with kickoff at 5PM – shortly after the announcing of the teams and the national anthem played in front of a large and excited crowd.
The game got off to a very quick start. Both teams had to do their best to settle the nerves of playing in a huge championship game. The Lions received the ball and struck first on their opening offensive series, driving the ball the length of the field. The offensive line had a difficult task blocking the Gators big defensive linemen, but was able to open enough lanes for veteran running-back and Captain Matt Croasdaile to score the first touchdown. Croasdaile, who rushed for 96 yards on 31 carries and 4 touchdowns, had a tough day with moments of big hits and muscled runs. (For his hard play and massive scoring efforts Croasdaile was voted by the league representatives as being the game’s Most Valuable Player, and received the MVP trophy in the post-game ceremony – his third career time receiving such an honor).
UTS answered back with a touchdown of their own, with quarterback Jean Prill leading his team with deep passes and very fast scrambles and runs outside. The UTS kicker missed the extra point however, a mistake he repeated later, to leave he score 7-6 in favor of the Lions. Linebacker’s Nick Baldwin, Joe Lim, and Chris Noble had to chase down Prill several times to keep him in check; his speed around the outside defenders made his runs a very dangerous threat to the Lion’s field position.
The Lions scored once more under the heels of Croasdaile, before UTS scored again and missed another point. The halftime score was a narrow 14-12 Lions upper hand. Senior blocker David Thode reflected later on his offensive line’s tough job against a resilient UTS front, “I feel that we were able to grind them out through consistently aiming for perfection: we didn’t attain it every time, but this allowed us to aim the highest that we could, and at least put our stud athletes in the best position to do what they do.”
The Second half really gave the crowd the action the came for. An exciting 24 minutes of football saw two lead changes, several penalty flags and pivotal calls from the referees, as well as dramatic long passes and runs. Croasdaile scored again early and Marc Biedenkapp kicked the extra point to send the Lions up 21-12. The third quarter then saw the game shift in UTS’ favor with Prill’s unit producing two consecutive touchdowns and conversions for 14 unanswered points.
Heading into the 4th quarter the score was UTS 26, Sydney Uni 21. The final 12 minutes proved to be a roller coaster ride of action. The Lions defense had given up a few long passes for scores earlier, and was finding it harder and harder to contain Prill’s runs and the powerful running-back’s drives up the middle. However they did have great field position having pinned UTS down within their own 10 yard line.
If ever the Lions ever needed a massive play it was now. In perhaps the pivotal moment of the final period, Prill handed the ball off to his running-back who, when he got tangled up in short yardage, attempted to pitch the ball back to Prill. The ball was fumbled and Sydney Uni’s fiery linebacker Greg Wernecke, from Vermont, came up with perhaps the most important play of his career. He fought of the blocks, dives, and even punches of three UTS linemen to grab the football, recovering the fumble and giving the Lions offense an outstanding opportunity. Wernecke jumped from the pile with the ball raised high, handed it to the referee, and then ran to the sidelines amid shouts of excitement and cheers of anticipation. The Lions offense surely capitalized on the opportunity, with Croasdaile diving across the line to go ahead by one mere point, 27-26.
Sydney Uni’s defense again answered the call on the next drive, stopping UTS’ progress only just shy of a touchdown. The Lions were severely backed up to their own end zone and needed to score to put the Gators out of reach – time was running low. After two short running attempts, the Lions were left with a 3rd down and long situation with 5 minutes left. If they didn’t convert on the next play they would be forced to punt the ball to UTS in a very dangerous field position.
Quarterback Danny Kelen, who completed 9 of 14 passes for 256 yards and 1 TD, dropped back with the ball. Stepping up into the pocket of blockers and under hard pressure, Kelen fired to his right to find star wide receiver Kiernan Dorney who had a step on his defender. In what Head Coach Steve Dunne later called “One of the greatest plays in Lion’s Championship football history,” Dorney caught the ball, shed off a tackler, and ran 87 yards – almost the length of the entire field – down his own sideline for a touchdown. With the crowd and sideline screaming, the referees cleared the touchdown after an offside penalty from the defense.
Biedenkapp kicked the extra point to put the score at 34-26. Dorney, who finished the game with 6 catches for 200 yards and the one touchdown (setting club records for the longest reception in team history and single game receiving yardage), spoke about the exhausting but spectacular moment after the game, “Danny put the ball right on the money. I saw him (the safety) coming hard at me but I was able to slip his tackle and then it was off to the races. I didn’t know what to do except run like people were chasing me for my life. Now I’m a pretty fast guy – you know, that’s why I play receiver – but even I felt pretty lonely out there on that run. It was the longest play of my life and it felt like it would never end, but yeah I got to that end zone alright. It was an unbelievable feeling.”
After kicking the ball off to the Gators, the Lions defense one more time stopped their progress. The offensive unit took the ball with under 2 minutes to go, and after pushing with everything for a short first down run, they ran out the time on the clock to the secure the win. When the final whistle blew, the Lions’ sideline erupted in excitement, rushed the field in victory, and the celebrations began.
The medals and trophy ceremony followed, champagne flowed, and the Waratah Bowl Championship Cup was lifted by Sydney University Captains David Thode, Leigh Louey-Gung, James “Mac” Shine, and Joe Lim for the seventh straight year. After the festivities and team photos, SUSF media relations caught up with Coach Steve Dunne and Captain Dave Thode for a few questions on the day.
Head Coach Steve Dunne’s interview:
Coach how does it feel to win 7 straight, and what makes this one unique from the others?
It’s a privilege to play in a Championship Game and to win it is special. There’s an enormous satisfaction in seeing the work as a team turn into a win like that. What made this unique was the fact that in 3 of the last 5 games – including the Championship – we had to come back in the 4th quarter to win. It really showed our championship mentality.
This win also gives us 45 straight wins… but also 3 straight undefeated seasons, which I don’t think any team in the country has achieved.
You guys were down heading into the 4th quarter – what adjustments did you guys make to overcome such a tough UTS defense?
We made minor adjustments but stuck with the base plays. There is so little margin for error in a title game that the smallest changes can make a play work. But for offense it came down to blocking and executing the fundamentals; that and some very good feedback from the players. To be down on the scoreboard and know that we had to lift – and that we did that as a team – was everything you want as a coach.
What did you tell your guys at halftime?
That we’d had some bad breaks and put ourselves in tough situations but that I could tell everyone had their head in the right place. That we had two quarters to show that we could play like champions.
How did you feel your players’ attitude and emotions were, and is it difficult as a coach to keep those in check in such a big game? How did their attitude play into the game’s result?
No championship game is ever easy. It’s the team that gets back to the basics of unity, effort and character that has the best chance. At the end of a long season the battle is a mental one as much as anything. I was proud to see the guys lift and deliver a great result.
Offensive Lineman and Captain David Thode’s interview:
Dave what are your thoughts on UTS and their play throughout the game? Did you ever think “this might be the day we let one slip?”
UTS played well all game, full credit to them. They hustled, hit and didn’t give up. That being said, we could see what they were doing, and the only issue was our own execution. I never felt that this one would slip- we had them lined up, and knew that we could finish them. I didn’t expect it to happen as it did, but there was no doubt.
What was the mood with your teammates like at certain points throughout the game, notably being behind late and having to rise above that?
I’ve been behind in games before, but there is no panic. We have worked hard for a long time to get to this position, and know what we can do. The mood in the huddle was upbeat but direct- we knew that we had to get our heads on straight, and do what we do week in, week out. The last month of games has been really tough, so we knew we could do it, and the pressure was on them to stop us.
You guys have just won 7 straight Waratah Bowls – how do you keep playing at such a high level?
Defending a championship is much harder than winning it, as the pressure is on you, and the motivation must come from within. That being said, we work harder than any other team in the off-season, and our training in season is tough: it’s not an accident that leads to these results, it’s constant hard work. Players come and go, but the attitude the club has is stronger than any individual.
You and your teammates will surely celebrate this win – how does it feel to be champs again?
It’s an amazing feeling. This year was tougher than any other, with teams really pushing us. It’s a good feeling to win; it’s a great feeling to get a hard fought win. We know what it takes to get there, so we can focus on that for next season. It’s already begun…
The Sydney University Lions will celebrate becoming Gridiron NSW Champions for 2009 this coming week. They would like to thank everyone from the league, the University, the fans, and the crew of team personnel and support for their hard work this successful season.
The league’s junior under-18’s competition begins soon. The Sydney University Cubs are also the reigning champions from last year’s competition, and will try to repeat that title this coming season. Registration for the Cubs takes place this Wednesday, December 16 at 6:30 PM at the Arena Sports Centre, Sydney Uni.
For more information, contact info, full match reports, statistics, and league details please see http://www.sydneyunigridiron.com/ as well as http://gridironnsw.org.au.