After losing by just one try in the 2010 MIAA championship game to Loyola, the Mount St. Joseph rugby team entered this past season with one goal in mind: to not let history repeat itself and, in turn, win the program's first conference title.
The team used the 2010 championship defeat as motivation all season, and players donned shirts emblazoned with the game's final score and the words, "Not this year. Gaels rugby all the way."
The Gaels lived up to the message printed on their shirts and followed through with their goal, defeating Calvert Hall, 29-24, on May 18 in the MIAA rugby championship.
"The boys made that the theme for the year," coach Michael Finley said of the 2010 title-game loss. "They said it wasn't going to happen again this year. They were all pretty disappointed when they lost by just one score."
Said senior scrum half Eric Sweeney: "It motivated us. It served as a reminder for what we were trying to do and what we were trying to accomplish."
Sweeney was the key to the Gaels' victory over Calvert Hall in the championship game. The senior captain recorded 19 points off two tries, three conversions and one penalty kick, and scored the game-winning try with just three minutes remaining.
Sweeney also showed a high level of dedication in the game, overcoming a stomach bug to lead the Gaels to victory. He threw up after scoring the game-winning try but came back in to kick the ensuing conversion, which put the Gaels ahead for good.
"It was a stomach thing that was going around," Finley said. "He just said, 'I'm good to play.' And he put everything he had into it. He wasn't going to stop."
The championship victory capped a dominant 2011 campaign for Mount St. Joseph, which finished the season with a 15-1 record and perfect 9-0 mark in league play. Twenty-five of the team's 32 players recorded a point during the year, and the Gaels outscored their opponents 476-150 overall and 326-68 in the MIAA.
The team's only slip-up came on April 30 in a 42-8 loss to Gonzaga, a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference power that placed third overall in the national high school tournament last weekend. Sweeney said the loss to Gonzaga helped the team make improvements heading back into MIAA play and it showed, as the Gaels went on to win their final three outings en route to the conference title.
"It showed us that we're not indestructible," Sweeney said. "We had some things we needed to work on. We had to improve those flaws. We knew we still had to work hard to get the [MIAA] championship."
It was senior leadership like the Gaels received from Sweeney, Finley said, that played a major part in the team's run to the championship. With 25 seniors, Finley noted a big reason for the team's success was because he never had to deal with "discipline or prima-donna problems."
With a close-knit, senior-laden group, the Gaels knew where they wanted to be at season's end. After all, players just had to do look down at the shirt on their chests for a simple reminder.
"We knew we wanted to win the whole season ever since last year," Sweeney said. "We knew we had a really nice team, and from the first game, I could tell we were going to go to the championship. We could tell it was going to be a good year because we were around the same guys the whole year."