It wasn’t the start Pittsburgh Steeltoes men’s rugby coach Jason Kelly was expecting.
With just under one minute left to play in the first half of Sunday’s Premier Rugby Sevens Eastern Conference championship game at Highmark Stadium in Station Square, the Steeltoes were facing a 19-point deficit against Memphis’ Southern Headliners.
Then Ben Pinkelman took over.
A Denver native and former U.S. Olympian, Pinkelman assisted on a try by Ethan Hager with 14 seconds left in the half, and the Steeltoes never looked back, scoring 21 unanswered points to emerge with a 21-19 victory against the Headliners to secure the Eastern Conference finals championship.
“The boys are fired up,” said Kelly of his Premier Rugby Sevens expansion team. “Everyone is incredibly fired up immediately after it. It was so fun and incredible playing in front of the Pittsburgh faithful today. The boys, it’s all they’ve been talking about, the crowds and how supportive they were.
“We are here to represent the great city of Pittsburgh. We’ve had a great time here, and we want to keep that going.”
Pinkelman was named the men’s Player of the Tournament, while Hager scored three tries over the Steeltoes’ two victories Sunday.
“He was incredible in that final,” Kelly said of Pinkelman, who competed for the U.S. at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. “He’s talked a bit about kind of getting back to where he was and not thinking that he was there. I think he showed today that he seems back. It was amazing to see.”
The Premier Rugby Sevens Eastern Conference champion Steeltoes men’s team advances to the PR7s Championships Aug. 6 at Audi Field in Washington, D.C.
The Steeltoes will face the Austin-based Texas Team in their first match of the PR7s Championships. The winner of the game will advance to face the winner of a match between Western Conference finalists SoCal Rhinos x Loggerheads and the Rocky Mountain Exports.
In their first match of the Eastern Conference finals, the Steeltoes knocked off the Texas Team, 33-5.
Kelly said preparations for the PR7s Championships will begin in earnest this week.
“Those teams are full of excellent players,” he said. “They are very star-laden and, like I said earlier in the week, we kind of are a team full of unheralded guys who are just chugging along. We will just see how we do.”
Things didn’t end as well for the Steeltoes women’s team, who opened the day Sunday with a 22-14 loss to the New York Locals, which eliminated Pittsburgh from PR7s Championship contention. The Steeltoes women then fell to the Texas Team, 29-0, to wrap up their season in the third-place consolation match.
“It certainly wasn’t what we had intended going in, but our team is mature in their thinking of understanding that this is such an experience and an opportunity to not only meet other rugby players and high-level athletes from across the globe but to be able to compete and be in a space to do that,” Steeltoes women’s coach Josie Ziluca said.
After falling behind the New York Locals on first-half tries by Mania Nuku and Stacey Waaka, the Steeltoes responded with second-half tries by Canadian national team member and two-time Olympian Sara Kaljuvee and Asia Hogan-Rochester, but it wasn’t enough.
The New York Locals got second-half tries from Amy Naber-Bonte and Tenika Willison to seal their victory.
“For both teams it’s a high-pressure game,” Ziluca said. “That game mattered for us and the for the opposition. The other team scored on us pretty quickly and so the assignment becomes harder as times goes on and the point differential becomes bigger.”
Ziluca said her team was never able to get itself going in its second game as tries by Kristen Thomas, Alena Saili and Tysha Ikenasio put the Texas Team out to a 17-0 lead it would not relinquish.
“Going into the second game, the mindset was showing off our super power and our super power is our defense,” Ziluca said. “Our super power wasn’t on for the first match and we tried to find that.
“Last time we played the Texas Team we shut them out,” she added. “It was just a little bit of an opposite story there.”
For the men’s side, Sunday was about overcoming early deficits.
After Rhodes Featherstone scored a try to put the Texas Team out to a 5-0 lead, the Steeltoes men responded with 33 unanswered points in their first game of the day.
Pinkelman, Aki Raymond, David Hightower, Hager and Mikhail “Misha” Shorin – a Kazakhstan native and Pittsburgh resident – all scored tries for the Steeltoes in their first match.
After falling behind, 19-0, against the Headliners on two tries by Kenny Jinkins and one by Will Chevalier, the Steeltoes responded with a pair of tries from Hager and one from Campbell Johnstone to claim the Eastern Conference title.
“Sevens is a game of kind of ebbs and flows and momentum shifts and all those kind of things,” Kelly said. “When we are patient and still aggressive we do really well. We just had to find our legs a couple of times.”
Aside from the Steeltoes men’s team, North Hills graduate Scout Cheeks will represent Pittsburgh at the PR7s Championships next month.
Cheeks, a former Penn State rugby player, is a center and hooker for the Southern Headliners, who won the Eastern Conference women’s title against the New York Locals, 12-7. She tallied a first-half try in the Eastern Conference final championship match.