Vipers beat MAC whipping boys, emerge in playoff position
After a brutal schedule out of the gates, consecutive wins against the
Mid-Atlantic Conference’s two heavily-struggling clubs have the Raleigh
Vipers sitting in playoff position halfway through the conference slate.
Not that the two efforts mirrored each other: The team followed up a 27-19
home win over Nova that was among the weakest efforts of the year with a
32-3 win at Pittsburgh in which the score didn’t fully capture the
Only one of those performance levels could possibly prove useful when
Raleigh attempts to extend its three-game winning streak while hosting
undefeated PAC Exiles in a 2 p.m. game at Poole Road on Saturday.
On Oct. 11, the Vipers took the field on that home field against a Nova
team without a point in the standings. Knowing of Nova’s struggles seemed
to poison Raleigh’s mentality, and the visitors struck twice to jump out to
a 12-0 lead in the first 13 minutes. The home club could not string any
consistent offense together in a half characterized by mistakes and
spiritless play. Fly half Brian Maxwell broke through with a try in the
22nd minute, but the club trailed 12-5 at the break.
Raleigh would seize control of the game in the second half, albeit not with
the effortlessness of every other team in the conference. Nova had
previously allowed at least 42 points to every opponent, and lost each game
by 29 or more. Raleigh would never seem seriously threatened as it steadily
ran off 27 straight points. But they were 27 quite labored points against a
Nova team that presented some fight, but nothing indicating some grand
infusion of talent to the winless club.
Hooker Joe DePalo broke through the Nova forwards for a try eight minutes
into the second half to cut the gap to 12-10. The next 12 minutes yielded
no scoring, but then the Vipers’ new tandem of Army wingers continued
asserting a level of athleticism causing several teams problems. Mike
Melendez-Rivera put a try down in the 60th minute, and Steve Johnson added
one in the 68th, the latter of which outside center Gareth Jones converted
for a 22-12 lead.
Abe Harman would push across a late team forward try to make it 27-12
Vipers before Nova capped the scoring with a futile try in the end. One
coach called the game the worst performance of the season, despite the win.
A different story
Despite making the long drive to Pittsburgh the next week with a
short-handed squad (only one sub was used) the next week left a better
after-taste. Even if the score at half-time didn’t reflect that.
The Vipers dominated play throughout, but in the first half seemingly ran
into an invisible wall at the try line. Raleigh possessed the ball within
10 meters seven times in the half without breaking through in a scoreless
Early in the second 40, the teams traded penalties, with Gareth Jones
giving the Vipers a 3-0 lead before the Harlequins tied it. Raleigh broke
through near the 55th minute as inside center Theo Burkhead finally reached
the promised land.
It took another 15 minutes, but then Raleigh turned an apparent rubik’s
cube into the equivalent of a toddler’s “put the circle peg into the circle
hole” toy. Flanker Mattia Muller started the onslaught in the 71st minute
and ended it about ten minutes later. In the meantime, Jones and DePalo
also put tries home as the game went from 8-3 to 32-3 at breakneck pace as
Raleigh seemed to put all its pieces together.
The 5-point win put Raleigh into the fourth and final playoff position with
17 points. But Schuylkill River, with an identical 3-3 record, trails by
just one bonus point. Looking forward in the standings, the Vipers trail
second place Baltimore by two points and third place Norfolk by one,
although each of those teams has only played five games. (They have yet to
play each other, while Raleigh, PAC Exiles and Schuylkill River have played
each team once.)
PAC Exiles, Raleigh’s opponent this week, sits in first place at 6-0 with
27 points and it would take a catastrophic collapse to keep them out of the
playoffs. But the new club resulting from the merger of PAC and Maryland
Exiles could hardly be called unbeatable in what appears to again be a
competitive conference at least in the top 5. Against Baltimore, a very
late PAC try secured the Exiles an 11-point win; Schuylkill River led in
the second half before losing by 5.
Raleigh, meanwhile, has always played the original PAC tough regardless of
standings. This year was no different. The Vipers lost at PAC Exiles 17-0,
but that marked PAC’s lowest point total of the year, and Raleigh had
traveled without a slew of injured and unavailable players that, in
particular, limited the team’s speed. The Vipers should field a much more
potent offense at home on Saturday. A win could put Raleigh in great
position to earn its first playoff birth since 2010-11.