Sophomore Justus Tavai opened the scoring in Mira Costa’s 41-14 romp over Dana Hills in the Southern California Blue Division championship game. Photo by Ray Vidal
Three months ago, Mira Costa rugby coach Duke Dulgarian stood watching his newly formed rugby team take the practice field for the first time as a complete unit. It was one week after the Mustang’s football team was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Northern Division championships and many players who had just hung up their shoulders pads were going to give rugby a try.
“At the first practice, I knew we had potential,” Dulgarian said. “But having a undefeated season in our first year was furthest from my mind. I was so blessed to have such a great group of kids.”
Dulgarian’s squad completed the feat Saturday with a 41-14 win over Dana Hills to capture the Southern California Youth Rugby Blue Division Championship in a game played at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego. The Mustangs finished their inaugural season with an 11-0 record.
Dulgarian said he was surprised at the lopsided outcome against a team the Mustangs edged 22-14 in early December. But Mira Costa’s physical dominance and athleticism proved to be the deciding factor as it had throughout the season.
“It was nip-and-tuck in the first half,” said Dulgarian, whose team held a slight 12-7 lead at halftime. “We turned it around, though, and physically wore them down.”
Justus Tavai gave Mira Costa a 5-0 lead before Dana Hills responded with a 30-yard score and successful kick to go ahead 7-5.
With about four minutes left in the first half and the ball on the Mira Costa five-yard line, a Dana Hills player suffered an injury. Because there is a running clock in rugby, the referee asked Dulgarian if he wanted to end the half.
Mira Costa team leader Jahlani Tavai interceded.
“Jahlani overheard the conversation and said ‘No. Let’s play,’” Dulgarian said.
It proved to be a good decision as Jahlani Tavai scored on a 9-yard run in the final minute to put the Mustangs back on top 12-7 at the half.
After Dana Hills recaptured the lead 14-12 early in the second half, Mira Costa scored 29 unanswered points to seal the victory and the championship.
“It was a true team victory,” Dulgarian added. “Our forwards sharing the ball made the difference. Sebastian Franck-Love and Brandon Mills had nice runs off passes from Jahlani.”
Mills’ 10-yard scoring run early in the second half proved to be the game winner for Mira Costa putting the Mustangs up 17-14.
Franck-Love scored on a 15-yard run, Jahlani Tavai added the next two scores and Juwan Johnson rounded out the scoring while dragging several opponents with him.
Jahlani Tavai, who is a member of the U.S. National 18U 15s and 7s teams, considers himself a coach on the field because of his strong background in rugby.
”I’m usually the one making sure that everyone is in the right place,” the senior said. “I try and put the big guys such as Big Joe (Anderson) in a certain place so they have a chance to run the ball.
“As a leader I feel proud to be called a Mustang. My team did exactly what coach Duke taught us to do and they also realized that since they were new in the sport they had to commit most of their time learning the game. It’s amazing how far we have made it. It really wouldn’t have been the same if the seniors hadn’t played. Joe Anderson, Harrison Morrow, Greg “Beef” Briskin, Kevin Brothers, Khalil Sonko, Brandon Mills, and Sebastian Frank-Love are the real reason why we made it so far.”
Dulgarian realizes the seniors will leave big shoes to fill next season, but is optimistic the success of this year’s team will help build the program.
“The cupboard will be a little thin next year,” Dulgarian said. “But we started three freshmen in the championship game who were huge contributors.”
One of the freshmen was scrum-half Harrison Dulgarian who completed the game with a broken nose suffered in the first five minutes of the contest.