By Justin Rutledge | 11.16.16
It’s not about how you start. It’s about how you finish.
These words are applicable to any sport, team or otherwise, and was especially appropriate for the Cleveland Crusaders’ second year. Going into the 2016 Fall season Cleveland was coming off an unbelievable inaugural year that saw both teams blaze through their respective divisions, with one moving up. Expectations were high; and the long season produced areas of pride for the Crusaders. It also showed that work still needs to be done.
The Division II side went into the season expecting to see some familiar faces across the field in the Detroit Tradesmen and Pittsburgh. New on the scene was Grand Rapids, the team that was promoted from Division III. In the offseason, Detroit RFC and Dayton Flying Pigs moved down to Division III in the Michigan and South divisions, respectively. This arrangement compacted the Fall schedule and left a mystery to be solved in newcomers.
The DII side started its season with a challenge. The first team on the schedule was the Detroit Tradesmen. The match was symptomatic of two things: the side’s potential and a trend that would plague the Crusaders throughout the season. Early in the match, everyone was clinical – tackles were low and unforgiving, the offense sharp. Detroit struggled to make progress and build momentum in the early goings of the match. As Detroit’s frustration grew, the penalties mounted. Nick Viviani was on hand to make Detroit pay every single time. He even converted a penalty kick through the uprights from 50 meters out – with distance to spare. The Crusaders went into the halftime break with a lead and a high. The Crusaders came down hard when a soft second half allowed Detroit to slither back into the match. Converted tries from Preston Lowden and “Showtime” Steve Burke couldn’t close the deficit. The Crusaders refused to let the match slip away and forced another penalty in front of the crossbars well within Viviani’s range. The flyhalf converted it and the final whistle blew – with the teams level, 29-29.
This up-and-down style of play would be the modus operandi for the DII side throughout the season. On paper, the DII side seemed to pick up where it left off – maybe with a little letdown – but a closer examination of the results shows exactly how detrimental the inconsistencies were.
In the second match of the season, the Crusaders got a seven-point win against Pittsburgh, 33-26. Man-for-man Pittsburgh is a team that is nowhere near the Crusaders’ DII side, yet the match came down to the wire. Once again, Burke and Viviani featured in this successful outing. One of the team’s Akron imports, David DiFrancesco, added a five-pointer during the match, as did Captain Zach Webb. Again, the Crusaders put the opposition to the sword in the opening period of play, shutting out Pittsburgh until a mental lapse in the 40th minute let in a sucker-punch try from a restart. Slowly, Pittsburgh shipped away at the lead, an effort that lasted up to the twilight moments of the match. Fortunately for the Crusaders, the effort wasn’t enough to steal the win.
The third match had the DII side against newcomers, Grand Rapids Gazelles. The Crusaders won that match in convincing fashion, 62-14. By any measure, that score is nothing to sneeze at, but it was not exemplary of what the Crusaders were capable of. Up to that point, the Gazelles had not scored a point and had one hundred-point scores put up on them. The fact that the Crusaders let that cold streak slip shows how the inconsistent execution on defense hurt the Cleveland side. When the Crusaders did perform to expectation and potential, the players couldn’t be touched.
After these matches, the DII side returned to form, securing a 71-38 win over Pittsburgh in the late half of the season. “Showtime” Steve was back in action, getting a hat trick in the match, as did David DiFrancesco. Nick Viviani was hot off the tee again, converting eight tries successfully. Rookie AJ Short powered over for a try. Joe Brown and Chris Fischer also scored tries from the pack. Nick Musarra also added five points to his team’s total.
Unfortunately for the Crusaders, the last two matches of the season didn’t go as well as the rematch against Pittsburgh. The rematch against the Tradesmen went the same way the first match did – with the Crusaders coming out to a dominant start but letting up in the second half. Unfortunately, this time Detroit had Cleveland chasing a deficit, a deficit that proved insurmountable. Despite converted tries from DiFrancesco and Fischer and four penalty kicks from Viviani, the Crusaders came up short in the 45-26 decision. In, perhaps, the most disappointing result of the season, Grand Rapids forfeited in the final match of the season. The Gazelles had been the whipping boy of the league since moving up and decided not to travel and take another beating. This decision gave the Crusaders league points but robbed the players of a chance to close out the season on their terms – on a high note.
The upside is that the season isn’t over and the Crusaders aren’t finished. The Crusaders go into the winter intermission with a 4-1-1 record and 21 league points. Like last season, the Crusaders are in second place, behind the Tradesmen. The 2016-2017 journey continues with playoffs. Winter training will be important and will give the team the best shot at improving on last year’s finish – and it’s all about how you finish.