Vipers heartbroken but not empty-handed after nearly toppling Potomac

After a sluggish first half the Raleigh Vipers controlled the second half and managed to secure two points in the standings. But the furious comeback came up just short as the still-undefeated Potomac Exiles survived a thriller in its trip to the South, 27-26.

After a couple of breaks Raleigh knocked on the door late, threatening to erase a three-point deficit and tally a huge win. But PAC held the home squad at bay, and then managed to make way down the field for a try of its own, which proved decisive.

Down eight, Raleigh desperately tried to get a quick score but seemed destined to walk away empty handed. But with the clock winding down wing Steve Johnson administered a sudden shock of excitement and hope when he picked off a pass near midfield and streaked down the field untouched for his third try of the game.

After fly half Gareth Jones’ conversion the try was worth seven points on the scoreboard but, more consequentially, two in the standings: the fourth try gave Raleigh a try bonus, and closing the gap to less than a try gave the home team a close-loss bonus.

Any sudden hope of then miraculously turning the loss bonus into four points for a win proved futile; as soon as Patomac’s kickoff sailed out of bounds, the ref blew the final whistle to officially snap a three-game win streak and drop Raleigh to 3-4.

The Vipers proved unable to dig out of a 22-5 first-half hole. PAC, now 7-0, asserted itself early by methodically but quickly working the ball down the pitch. Fullback Mark McKinnon pushed a try across in the third minute for a 5-0 lead.

Potomac added a penalty by scrumhalf Christopher Saint in the 18th minute before outside center Rob Gordinsky finally put Raleigh on the board a minute later with a try in the left corner after the defense had been sucked in.

Jones, who struggled with the boot the previous week, had a tremendous day kicking, and would latter convert a similar bad-angle conversion. But this first attempt from near the sideline would find post.

From there Raleigh continued to dig its first half-hole: Just about a minute after Raleigh’s try, Saint sprinted around a breakdown to a defenseless weak side for a try he would then convert. Six minutes later Saint converted a try by hooker Jason Vanterpool to give Potomac its 17-point edge.

But after being mostly dominated in the first half, the Vipers began to turn the possession battle in the second. And some changes allowed the Vipers to do more with the ball when they had it. Matt Pounds subbed in at wing to push Mike Melendez-Rivera inward to outside center, and those two along with Johnson gave the team three players with wing-level speed in the backline. Theo Burkhead came to push Gordinsky into the forwards’ backrow, adding another degree of experience and offensive explosiveness.

The Exiles struggled to defend the new personnel. Johnson finished a good team try in the 48th minute, and Jones converted. He added his second try in the 53rd and Jones converted again, making the score 19-22.

Raleigh seemed poised to put another try across, with breaks by both Burhead and Johnson, but the Exiles rallied and weathered the storm. They managed to turn the tide and Saint completed his hat trick in the right corner to extend the lead to 8 with a bit more than 10 minutes left.

Raleigh continued to scramble but seemed destined to come up empty after more Exile defense. But Johnson stepped in front of a backline pass to set the final margin.

The Exiles not only hadn’t lost to this point, but only Schuylkill River had managed to earn a point off them with a 22-17 loss in Philadelphia. Second-place Baltimore-Chesapeake had threatened to earn a point but a late Potomac try earned the visitors a 22-11 victory.

The Vipers at 3-4 with 19 points sit in third place technically, though Norfolk (3-2, 17 points) has only played five games. After the Nov. 1 break for U.S. vs. New Zealand in Chicago, Raleigh will travel to Baltimore before hosting Norfolk.

Schuylkill River sits just outside playoff position at 3-3 with 16 points, but should gain points against league also-rans Nova and Pittsburgh before facing Raleigh in a crucial Nov. 22 game in Philadelphia to close the fall season for both teams.

Raleigh has only two games in the spring but they are against the two still-winless clubs in the seven-team division.

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