Since the start of last fall, the Raleigh Vipers have suffered four crushing home defeats in the final minutes. The team did not let Saturday become a fifth.
Vipers winger Steve Johnson capped a multi-phase team effort on the winning try in the 77th minute and the Vipers held on for a 17-15 win over Schuylkill River, but only after a last-second penalty kick from the Exiles missed left.
Johnson also opened the scoring on a fantastic individual effort that put Raleigh up 5-0. But Raleigh’s offense stalled and sputtered for much of the game against the reigning league champions.
The Exiles would take a 10-5 lead after tries from wing Daniel Nau and eight Randy Helsman in the 28th and 32nd minute respectively. The visitors kept the momentum going and in the 55th minute, Helsman took a ball mixed in with the backs and broke through the Raleigh defense to make it 15-5.
But even with that lead Schuylkill knew it was leaving points on the pitch. While Raleigh struggled with keeping its own line-outs and maintaining possession in open play for much of the game, the Exiles’ achilles was its kicking game. Normal kicker and scrum half Owen Jones left in the 27th minute with an injury. In his absence, none of three conversion attempts, one of which was basically centered, found the mark. A centered penalty from just outside the 22-meter line also went begging.
Raleigh would punish the Exiles for the missed opportunities. The Vipers, utilized five of its substitutions to help stay fresh, and one of them, inside center Theo Burkhead, slashed into the try zone to make it a one-score game in the 67th minute. Owen Jones’ brother Gareth Jones slotted the centered conversion to trim the Exiles’ lead to 15-12.
The Vipers continued to put pressure on Schuylkill after playing defense for much of the first half and the first half of the second. Recent additions Johnson and Mike Melendez-Rivera gave Raleigh a new speed dimension and strong tackling on the wings as Jones occasionally slashed through his former teammates. Forwards managed to retain the ball consistently late, and played a key role with pounding runs and effective rucking to draw in the defense and create enough space for Johnson to finish the job on the late try that give Raleigh a two-point lead.
Knowing it had just a few minutes of clock to kill, Raleigh initially controlled the ball on the ensuing kickoff. But after a couple phases a missed connection on a pass too complicated for the occasion gave a desperate Exiles team one last possession.
Not long after what looked like a Schuylkill knock on that wasn’t called, a diving over penalty was called on Raleigh just outside the Raleigh 22 and about halfway between the center and the left sideline, giving the Exiles a shot at a game-winning kick. It was pulled and hit fat, generating a low line drive well left of the target that never had a chance. The ref blew his whistle and Raleigh could finally exhale and celebrate the win.
While 1-3 heading into a bye week, Raleigh has faced all four of last year’s playoff teams and earned three bonus points in addition to its four for the win. Based on results so far, it appears those four — Baltimore, Potomac, Norfolk, and Schuylkill — will be the group Raleigh has to crack to earn one of four playoff spots.
Pittsburgh and Nova have lost all eight of their contests, none of them remotely close, and Raleigh still has four games against those struggling clubs, including its next two.
– Kyle Jahner