Nations: Lions undaunted by defeat

This one is going to sting for awhile.

The members of Lord Fairfax Community College’s blossoming men’s rugby program had the highest of hopes heading into Saturday’s National Small College Rugby Association (NSCRO) national playoff game.

The Lions, who earned the right to play in and host their first-ever playoff match by winning the Cardinal Collegiate Conference and a state championship (Virginia D-III) back in November, wanted to take that next step as a program by winning Saturday’s match against Mount St. Mary’s and moving on to the NSCRO’s “Sweet 16” later this month in Jacksonville, Fla.

Instead: Mount St. Mary’s 49, Lord Fairfax 17.

“Of course they’re upset, but they’re not disheartened,” Lord Fairfax men’s rugby coach Stuart Freakley said. “They realize this is a huge achievement for us.”

That it is considering just how rapidly LFCC head rugby coach Aaron Painter and Freakley have built the Lions into a nationally competitive program. The pair got the sport started in the spring of 2011, and by last year the Lions were knocking on the door for a national playoff spot. Lord Fairfax lost out in the 2012-2013 season on a head-to-head tiebreaker to state rival Christopher Newport, but the team came back even stronger for this season.

As new members of the six-team Cardinal Collegiate Conference, Lord Fairfax went 5-1 in conference play to win the league title and a state championship to go along with it.

Freakley thinks the Lions’ success can be self-perpetuating, despite the potential instability of trying to maintain a competitive roster at a two-year college with considerable turnover from semester to semester.

“We’re seeing more and more guys come out for the team,” Freakley said. “I think the success we’ve have helps sell the program. These kids want to play for a winner. And the school’s put a lot of support behind us.”

The Lions’ dreams of moving on to Jacksonville and eventually to April’s Final Four in Glendale, Colo., might have been dashed by the Mount on Saturday, but Freakley and company have simply readjusted their goals and are now looking forward to chasing another national spot in April.

It will be the same game, but in a slightly different format for the Lions when they take part in the NSCRO 7’s National Qualifier Tournament (April 5-April 6) in Richmond. The lineup, for one thing — only seven players per team are on the field in a fast-paced, 14-minute match consisting of seven-minute halves.

Freakley said it’s basically a faster-paced version of traditional rugby, with plenty of quick-strike scoring.

To move on to the national tournament, Lord Fairfax would need to win five matches in the two-day span to earn a trip to Philadelphia for the national tournament in the spring.

“It just wasn’t our day,” Freakley said of Saturday’s defeat to Mount St. Mary’s. “We still have a lot of heart and determination to finish out the season strong.”

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>