18-0! Breaking Down Navy Rugby’s Amazing Championship Season

18-0! Breaking Down Navy Rugby’s Amazing Championship Season

Navy Rugby has a long and storied history at Annapolis. It was introduced in 1962 as an intramural sport. The following spring, the Second Battalion won the first Brigade Championship. The Mids also began playing local teams that same year. And over the next six decades, they enjoyed quite a bit of success as a club program, often competing against some of the best varsity teams in the country.

Now . . . besides having a highly competitive program, Navy Rugby also has a very loyal and active fan base. For years, they had been advocating to elevate the team to varsity status. The alumni was very organized, and they had no problem reaching into their pockets to support the cause.

Then, on May 16th 2022, their efforts finally paid off. That’s when Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk announced that Men’s (and Women’s) Rugby would compete as a varsity sport starting in the fall. Less than a year later, the Mids were the undisputed champions of Division 1 college rugby. This is the story of how they got there.

The Journey Begins

The goal here is to focus heavily on the events of the past 12 months. But I think it’s appropriate to acknowledge all of the past players and coaches who helped build the Navy Rugby program’s foundation. So, a huge “THANK YOU” to all those individuals. It’s because of them that the team wasn’t just starting from scratch.

As I’ve mentioned before, any team’s success at Annapolis can be traced back the coaching staff. Is it 100% committed to the Naval Academy’s mission? Can the coaches mesh that with the ability to identify talented athletes who are critical to the program reaching the highest level? And perhaps most importantly, is there an established culture that everyone has bought into?

So, I figure that the coaches are a pretty good place to start. From there, we’ll talk about some of the key players whose names kept popping up throughout the season. Here we go.

The Navy Rugby Brain Trust

Gavin Hickie, Director of Navy Rugby
Gavin Hickie, Director of Navy Rugby (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Just a quick heads up – credit for both the coaches and players’ backgrounds goes to the Navy Sports web page. It’s a source that I find absolutely indispensable when putting together these features. That said, let’s get started.

Gavin Hickie was hired as the Director of the Navy Rugby program in 2017. He took over for Mike Flanagan, who had coached the team for 27 years.

A native of Dublin, Ireland, Hickie possesses a deep rugby resume. He played professionally both in Ireland and the UK from from about 2001 to 2007.

Later that year, Hickie began his coaching career at Leicester Academy before making his way to Southern California. There, he spent 5 years as an assistant coach the club level as well as head coach of a high school team in Long Beach.

James Willocks, Asst. Director of Navy Rugby
James Willocks, Asst. Director of Navy Rugby (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

In 2012, Coach Hickie came east to lead the program at Dartmouth College. In the five years he was there, the Big Green won Ivy League titles in both the 7’s and 15’s every single season. So when Flanagan retired as Navy’s coach, it wasn’t too hard to figure out why Gladchuk wanted Hickie to succeed him. All he did was win.

That left Dartmouth without a coach. The Big Green immediately brought back James Willocks, who was Coach Hickie’s assistant before taking the head coaching position at Penn State.

The program never skipped a beat. Willocks won six Ivy League championships and one Div. 1-AA national championship at Dartmouth during his tenure. Meanwhile, Coach Hickie was busy compiling an impressive 40-13 record during his first six years at Navy. And when the rugby program got elevated to varsity status in the spring of 2022, he knew exactly who he wanted to help take it to the next level. Coach Willocks joined him in a matter of weeks.

Putting a Plan Together

The Mids were certainly no strangers to winning, but Army had become a thorn in their side lately. Rugby had been a varsity sport at West Point since 2014. Over the next 5 years, they won 9 out of the first 15 games, including two in a row in 2020 and 2021.

The Black Knights also won the national championship in 2022. So it was pretty clear that Navy would have to go through them if they had any designs on bringing home the hardware in the spring.

The team did have some strong talent. But of the 23 athletes who made the trip to Houston for the championship game, 13 of them had never played rugby prior to coming to Annapolis. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? You may recall the Navy Rowing program turning first time rowers into national champions also.

Anyway, Coach Willocks sat down with me on the most recent Navy Sports Central podcast to talk about the strategy that he and Coach Hickie put together. You can click on the link to hear it in more detail. The main goal he stated was to use the Mids’ strengths to further develop the set piece tactics used throughout the game.

That turned out to be a difference maker. During the season, the Mids executed their on their line outs and mauls at a very high rate. That contributed to a pretty lopsided points differential. They outscored their opponents 760 – 208. Some quick math shows that they won their games by an average of about 30 points. Now let’s meet some of the players who contributed to that statistic.

Lewis Gray

Gray was one of the few players at Navy who had prior rugby experience. He earned All-American honors as a junior in high school.

Already recognized as one of the best in the country, the center from Jupiter, FL was intent on making his last year a memorable one. And he was a great fit for what Hickie and Willocks had in mind when it came to the Mids playing style.

Lewis Gray, 2023 Rudy Scholz Award winner – the best collegiate rugby player in the country (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

In addition to being an offensive force, Gray was as tough a defender as anyone on the team. He had a way of making sure opponents knew who it was that tackled them during a game. To quote Coach Willocks, Gray “always played with a little bit of venom.”

Being such a dominant two-way player resulted in the Washington Athletic Club naming Gray as the winner of the Rudy Scholz award at the end of the season. That’s college rugby’s version of the Heisman Trophy in football.

Jack McMahon

McMahon also played rugby in high school. He’s originally from Orland Park, IL. And his team won the Illinois Varsity State Championship when he was a senior.

Jack McMahon, Navy Rugby’s senior captain (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

After coming to Annapolis, McMahon’s solid play and the leadership were clearly evident during his first three years. That earned him the title of team captain going into his final season. Along with Gray, McMahon was another player who was absolutely critical to the team’s success. And there were a few more as well.

Roanin Krieger

Rugby is pretty popular in California. In fact, the University of California has won over 30 national championships. It’s program is recognized as one of the best in the country.

Freshman Roanin Krieger led the Mids in conversion kicks with 36 (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Coach Hickie found Roanin Krieger playing high school rugby in Placerville, CA., about a two and a half hour drive from the Cal-Berkeley campus. Krieger earned three varsity letters and was named team captain during his junior and senior year. Making the 2,700 mile journey to continue his playing career at Navy is looking pretty good so far. Krieger quickly established himself as one of the Mids’ most consistent point producers.

Sean MacLaney

I never would have thought there was much rugby being played in Rahway, NJ. But that shows you how much I know. Though primarily a wrestler in high school, Sean MacLaney also played club rugby for the Union County Mudturtles. The U18 team won three state championships and two national championships.

Junior scrum half, Sean MacLaney (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

MacLaney served as captain during his junior and senior seasons. He also made the all-state team four times. Coming to Annapolis after spending time at James Madison University, MacLaney was a mainstay at the scrum half position going into his third year at Navy.

Landon Opp

A junior from Fleming Island, FL just south of Jacksonville, Landon Opp didn’t play rugby in high school. He ran track and cross country, and he also played soccer.

Navy Rugby junior fly half /  fullback Landon Opp
Junior fly half / fullback Landon Opp (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Competing in these endurance sports made him an excellent rugby candidate, though. And he was already somewhat familiar with the club program since his brother Logan (Class of 2020) played for a couple of years.

Not only was Landon a legitimate threat to score from his fullback position, but he has put his soccer skills to good use on conversion kicks too.

So that does it for the five players I wanted to point out. But make no mistake. Every single player on the roster played an important role in the Mids’ incredible season. They all bought into the culture of accountability that Coach Hickie and Coach Willocks established. They held each other to a high standard from the very first practice. And when you have so many terrific athletes with that same attitude, good things are bound to happen.

The Road to the National Championship

I’m not going to sit here and do a running commentary of all 18 games. That would be ridiculous. But I will do a quick review of the first Army game in the fall and the first meeting between Navy and Cal roughly two months before the championship game. There will also be some back story provided to give you all some context.

Getting Out of the Blocks

I’m mixing sports here, but you all get the metaphor. The one thing you don’t want when kicking off a new season is to see your team stumble. The Navy coaching staff made sure that didn’t happen. In their first two games, the Mids outscored the Citadel and Southern Virginia by a combined total of 155-0. Granted, the opponents weren’t exactly perennial powers. But that kind of offensive production is no joke. Coach Hickie acknowledged that there was a lot of room for improvement. Still, it was great to see that kind of a start.

The Mids crushed Air Force 71-0 and retained the Lt. Col. Shea Memorial Rugby Cup to move to 5-0. Then they returned home to take on a very tough Penn State team. Navy held a slim 26-22 lead with just a couple minutes into the second half. But they scored the games final 13 points to close out the Nittany Lions 39-22.

By the end of October, the Mids were 9-0. That’s just where they wanted to be for their date with the defending champion Black Knights on the first Saturday in November. Army was undefeated going into the game also. It promised to be a real battle from start to finish.

Fight’s On

Earlier in the series, the Mids did win 5 straight games. But unfortunatley, they had dropped the last two contests by a combined score of 63-30 during their final two years as a club program. So I think it’s fair to say that they’d had just about enough by the time the Black Knights got into town.

It was all about territory control from the outset. The Mids got the early advantage when Ryan Bullock battled his way into the try zone less than 15 minutes into the game. Lewis Gray’s kick made it 7-0. Army responded by scoring after a Navy penalty in the 20th minute. The conversion kick knotted the score at 7-7.

Approaching halftime, the Mids tacked on another three points to go up 10-7. Then, the Black Knights looked like they would take the lead, but Roenin Krieger made a terrific tackle on an Army ball carrier, forcing him out of bounds just a few meters away from the try zone. So the team still held a three point lead going to the locker room.

Making a Statement

The wind became a real factor in the second half. The Black Knights had trouble kicking it out of their zone. Meanwhile, Gray made another penalty kick in the 45th minute. Now leading by six, Navy caught a nice break when flanker Tanner Russell blocked an Army kick out of bounds setting up a line out opportunity. Junior Vaughn Schmitz then came up with a steal, and Sean MacLaney scored the Mids second try of the day.

Navy senior Ryan Bullock
Senior Ryan Bullock runs through the Army defense in the Mids 27-14 win over the Black Knights (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

The Black Knights scored again to get to 20-14, but the Mids weren’t finished. A final try by Dale Sturdifen and a third Lewis Gray conversion made the score 27-14. And once again, Navy sang second.

Division Champions

With just one game remaining in the fall season, the team just needed a win over St. Bonaventure to clinch the Rugby East North Division Title. They limited the Bonnie’s offense to just 8 points in securing the 28-8 victory. The win also solidified the Mids #1 national ranking.

But the journey wasn’t over yet. There was still the spring season to contend with. And if that went well, a chance at a national championship awaited them.

Maintaining Focus

With 92 days between games, I don’t doubt that maintaining focus could have been a problem. But the team showed no signs of rust in their first spring match against Western Ontario. They shut out the Mustangs 39-0. That set the stage for a crucial contest the following week against the University of California.

For those who don’t know it, the Golden Bears are pretty much considered college rugby royalty. They’ve won 33 national championships. That includes an incredible 12 in a row from 1991-2002. But the last time Cal had hung a banner was 2017. So considering their track record, they figured they were about due.

Taming the Golden Bears

The Bears entered the game against the Mids ranked 4th in the country, undefeated and confident. In all their matches against Navy, the Golden Bears had yet to lose. So there was no reason for them to think this outcome would be any different.

And that’s the way things started out. Cal got on the board first by keeping the Mids in their defensive zone over the first 13 minutes of the game. The Bears finally broke through after a Navy penalty, scoring a try and converting the kick to take a 7-0 lead.

About eight minutes later, Jack McMahon got the Mids within two with a try, but the conversion kick missed. That didn’t faze them though. Matthew Thibodaux put the team in front with a try in the 26th minute, and Krieger’s kick made the score 12-7.

That lead didn’t last long. Cal scored again before the half and took a 14-12 lead after a successful conversion kick. Coming out for the final 40 minutes, the Golden Bears looked to take charge and extend their streak against the Mids.

It didn’t work out the way they planned. Navy caught fire and scored three consecutive tries; one by MacLaney and two more by Thibodaux. The conversion kicks made the score 33-14.

Cal did not go quietly, though. They came back with two tries of their own to make the score 33-26. In fact, they had an opportunity to win in the final minutes, but the Navy defense held. They had beaten the Golden Bears for the first time ever, and their march to a national championship continued.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Following the huge win over Cal, Navy Rugby closed out the regular season by defeating both Penn State and Army a second time. That pushed their record to 15-0 heading into the playoffs. Now it was win or go home. And advancing to the semi-finals meant having to take down the Black Knights once more.

Round 3 wasn’t even close. The Mids absolutely smothered Army’s attack. They scored 17 points in the second half on their way to an overwhelming 30-6 win. Defensively, they had an answer for everything the Black Knights came up with, keeping them out of the try zone the entire afternoon. One game down . . . two to go.

I planned to watch the semi-final when I was in Annapolis for the Army-Navy lacrosse game. That contest was supposed to be played at night, but a heavy threat of rain forced it to be rescheduled to 1:00. Since rugby started at noon, that ended any hope of seeing both. I had to be satisfied with tracking the game’s progress on my phone.

It was not pretty. Lindenwood University had a solid defense of their own. The Mids found that out quickly. It wasn’t necessarily a game to write home about, but winning ugly is better than not winning at all.

In the end, Navy scratched out a tough 12-10 win. They were on their way to Houston. Waiting for them in the finals was the University of California, who was looking for some serious payback after their loss to the Mids less than two months ago.

Navy Rugby celebrates a tough win over Lindenwood University in the Div. 1A semi-finals.
The Mids celebrate a hard-fought win over Lindenwood University in the Div. 1A semi-finals (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Navy – Cal (Part 2)

The Golden Bears didn’t waste any time making their presence felt. They delivered a couple of big body blows early that put Navy on their heels. Suddenly, the team was on the wrong end of a 15-0 score less than 25 minutes into the game.

North and South

Cal’s game plan employed more of a vertical running attack as opposed to running wide. Coach Willocks pointed out that they’d had good success using the same strategy to get back into the first contest.

But the Mids quickly regrouped after a short water break due to the higher than normal temperatures. It was just a matter of being more technically sound when tackling. With that in mind, the defense buckled down and slowly took control of the game.

The Mids Fight Back

At the same time, the offense started executing their line outs and mauls like they had the whole year. William Webb got the team on the board in the 29th minute. Then Sean MacLaney scooped up the ball following a tackle and scored about 10 minutes later. After two conversion kicks by Krieger, California led just 15-14 at halftime.

In the second half, both teams had some opportunities. About 12 minutes in, the ball wound up on the ground near the 22 meter line. A Golden Bear player picked it up and somehow broke through the Navy defense for the try. After the conversion kick, the Mids were down by eight, 22-14.

Navy defeated the University of California 28-22 in the Div. 1A National Championship game.
The Mids’ national championship game vs. Cal went right down to the wire. (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

They didn’t panic though. About 10 minutes later, the offense executed another successful line out and formed a maul. By sheer force of will, they moved closer and closer to the try zone before Ryan Bullock dove in for the try. Navy trailed 22-21 after Krieger’s conversion kick.

The Mids’ power game was firing on all cylinders. So it was a little ironic that the game clinching score came on a nicely executed pass to Landon Opp. He did the rest from there. Breaking two tackles, the junior fly half ran through the entire right side of the California defense and sprinted 30 meters for the try to give Navy their first lead of the game. After the conversion kick, their advantage was 6 points. But with over 10 minutes to go, there was plenty of time for the Golden Bears to answer.

Defense Saves the Day

California did not fold. On two occasions, they drove down inside Navy’s 5 meter line. The first time, they turned the ball over. But they got it right back when the Mids were penalized. On their next effort, Lewis Gray jarred the ball loose. It was a critical turnover because Cal was right on the doorstep. Landon Opp attempted a kick to push the Bears back. They did get possession, but were suffered a penalty following an illegal throw in. Navy’s ball.

That was pretty much it. The Mids used some short runs to burn up the clock. And after a Landon Opp kick downfield, the game was over. Navy had won their first Div. 1A National Championship. They had squared off against the best teams in the country didn’t lose a single game. To quote Coach Willocks, “18-0, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

The Road Ahead

The logical question moving forward is how does the Navy Rugby program leverage this championship to continue building on its success? Certainly, a national title carries a lot of gravitas on the recruiting trail. So that’s a pretty big plus.

There’s more to it than that, though. Coach Hickie and Coach Willocks have built a culture of accountability and trust that provides the infrastructure necessary to reach new heights. The challenge will be continuing to find players that are the right fit. And as importantly, the coaches are both committed to seeking out new, innovative ways to play rugby that will keep the program a step ahead of everyone else.

Will it be easy? Probably not. At this elite level, putting some distance between you and the competition is no small task. But after seeing how this team responded time and again throughout the season to achieve their dream . . . I’d say they’re up for it.

Until next time . . .

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