Lupian and Legion make local rugby history

Photo by Phillip Brents. San Diego Legion players pair up with local youth rugby players during introductions for Sunday’s Major League Rugby championship game.

Helix High School and SDSU alumnus Nick Lupian completed his second year with the San Diego Legion of Major League Rugby by making a historic trip to Sunday’s MLR championship game against the defending league champion Seattle Seawolves.

The top-seeded Legion dropped a heartbreaking last-second 26-23 decision to the second-seeded Seawolves, but made a statement in other areas.

The game was played in front of a live national television audience on CBS-TV and a capacity crowd (6,000) at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium.

The Legion’s championship game appearance was a gift to the San Diego County rugby community that has supported the team in ever increasing numbers over its brief two years of existence.

The disappointing result notwithstanding, it was clearly a moment for the local rugby community to feel proud.

Both teams finished the season 13-4-1 following the hard-fought match.

“Things are definitely going well for me and for the team,” Lupian acknowledged.

The Legion advanced to Sunday’s championship game in equally dramatic fashion by recording a last-minute come-from-behind 24-22 win over fourth-seeded Rugby United New York in a semifinal playoff match June 9 at Torero Stadium.

The Legion, which battled back from a 14-6 halftime deficit, came within a heartbeat of earning its first MLR championship shield after taking a 23-19 lead on a three-point drop-kick goal by team captain Joe Pietersen with two minutes to play in Sunday’s game.

But a fortuitous kick downfield and a subsequent penalty left the Seawolves, who defeated the Glendale Raptors, 23-19, to win last year’s inaugural MLR championship at Torero Stadium, with another chance at advancing the ball with 30 seconds to play.

Seattle managed to score the game-winning try from 10 meters out on a driving maul as time expired.

The small core of Seawolves fans erupted in a roar while the mass of Legion fans looked on in stunned silence as the season came to an abrupt conclusion for the home team.

Still, it was a giant step forward for the sport in not only the San Diego region but in the United States as a whole.

Making strides

Lupian, displaying a stiff upper lip in the wake of Sunday’s championship game defeat, got his first taste of professional rugby last season by appearing in a handful of games. It was a matter of making the jump up a competition level from college and also earning the trust of teammates.

Playing time became more frequent this season. “I traveled to every single away game,” he said proudly.

The Legion, in fact, spent the entire month of May on the road, starting with a 23-19 loss in Toronto before making its way back to the West Coast with victories in New Orleans (26-19) and Utah (31-21).

The Legion returned to host Military Appreciation Day on June 2 in celebration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day and attracted the largest regular season crowd (4,175) in franchise history as the Legion topped the New Orleans Gold 22-10 to secure the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.

The Legion had steadily gained momentum as the season progressed, finishing with an 8-1-1 run to finish at the top of the nine-team standings table.

“We definitely came back closer together as a group,” Lupian said in describing the team’s second-half surge. “We came to rely on our poise and composure to win games.”

The Legion, which lost 38-24 to Seattle in last year’s semifinals, had defeated the Seawolves twice this season.

“We fell short last year in the playoffs, so to get to the final this year is huge for us,” Lupian said.

As the sport continues to evolve in the United States, so does the former Highlander multi-sport standout as a rugby player.

“As a professional player, you need to eat healthy and maintain your fitness and strength,” Lupian said. “I also want to be the best teammate I can, on and off the field.”

The Legion’s culture of togetherness and team chemistry played a huge role in the team’s postseason success, according to team members.

“Last year you wanted to go out and play hard,” explained loosehead prop Nathan Sylvia, an honorable mention All-American at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “This year you still want to go out and play hard but you also want to play for your teammates, play for the guy next to you. I think that’s what kept us going in that last series (in the semifinal win).”

Sunday’s dramatic ending was a complete reversal of fortune, however.

“The ball bounces both ways,” Legion scrum half Nick Boyer summed up concisely. “We’ll be back next year.”

Lupian and Legion make local rugby history