The feeling was all too familiar to Niagara University junior Dennis Virtuoso. The heretofore-suppressed memory of losing a heartbreaker to Colgate University in last year's Division II club rugby playoffs had returned, dictated by the circumstances.
On Saturday in the 2013 title match, Niagara jumped out to an early 17-0 advantage on the home Raiders, only to see its lead once again evaporate in the closing minutes, forcing overtime. The final result would be different this time, however, as NU sophomore Patrick Morris (of Kenmore) converted a try in the extra period to give Niagara its first-ever D-II men's club rugby state championship.
It was the type of accomplishment that brings even the toughest men to tears.
"My initial reaction was to hug the person next to me and jump up and down like a child. I almost immediately started crying tears of joy," admitted Virtuoso, a Niagara Falls native who serves as team president.
"Words cannot describe how happy I was when the referee had signaled we won," added freshman Warren Solomon (Rochester). "We worked so hard all year and to see it pay off with a state championship, I was exuberant."
The university was expected to hold a send-off reception for the team in the Gallagher Center's Multi-Purpose Room Thursday.
With the 30-25 victory, Niagara advances to the Northeast Regional Championship to take on the U.S. Coast Guard Academy this Saturday at Salisbury (Md.) University. This is the first time NU has advanced to the USA Rugby Men's Division II College National Championship Round of 16.
Prior to defeating Colgate, NU knocked off top-seeded and heavily favored Buffalo State College, 10-8, on a cold, rainy afternoon on Monteagle Ridge.
Virtuoso said he's especially eager to share the trophy with the hundreds of Niagara club rugby alumni who came so close.
"It's such a rewarding feeling, not just for me, but for all of the presidents and players before me," he explained. "The alumni are ecstatic. We all get to see how the foundation that they laid is propelling this team to the success that it has now. For me, it's exciting to see where the team is going to go in the future."
The 2013 season's outlook appeared gloomy through the team's first six games. Niagara lost two of its key players, Zach Koenig (Penfield) and Dan Weingarten (Niskayna), to injury early on and stumbled to a .500 record.
At 4-3, Coach Gene Adams' squad was seeded sixth for the postseason tournament, which required it to overcome both Buffalo State and Colgate, two of the top 25 programs in the nation.
For Solomon, the championship is part of a natural progression of the Niagara club program that he had heard about as a senior at McQuaid High School.
"I knew that I wanted to play at the collegiate level. Talking to current Niagara players and coaches from the team, I got the feeling that they were a team on the rise and about to become a powerhouse program," he said. "When making my decision, I knew I wanted to be a part of this family."
For more information on club sports at Niagara University, call 716-286-8055 or email [email protected].