Austin Elite gets narrow win

SaberCats show promise in pre-season loss

Courtesy photo

It was "Faith and Family" night at Constellation Field as the Houston SaberCats prepared to open up their 2019 season in front of hundreds of excited fans of all ages and creeds. While the atmosphere remained fun and engaging throughout the evening, it ultimately ended in a bit of disappointment for the home crowd, as the SaberCats fell to the Austin Elite 14-10.

The first half was a dream come true for fans of defensive rugby tactics, with each team making a number of goal line stands inside their own 5-meter to keep the score even at zero. Audible groans could be heard around the park as both squads came close to hitting pay dirt time and again, especially as Josua Vici (SaberCats) and Kyle Breytenbach (Elite) saw near tries slip away as each player found themselves just barely beyond the boundary of the touchline.

Meanwhile, inside the 22's is where fans got to see the fireworks happen. Scrumhalf Connor Murphy looked to distribute the ball early and often to his playmakers, giving opportunities to guys like Malachi Esdale, Olympic Gold-Medalist Osea Kolinisau, and the aforementioned Fijian-phenom known as Josua Vici.

While the swarming defense of Austin Coach Alain Hyardet continued to give Murphy all he could handle taking the ball out of the ruck, their firewall was eventually broken through around the nine-minute mark on a spectacular counter attack by the 'Cats, ultimately allowing Fullback Zach Pangelinan to go diving into the in-goal from 40+ meters out for the try. Sam Windsor would miss the ensuing conversion kick, sending Houston into the locker room at halftime with a 5-nil lead.

The second half came about with an increased sense of urgency from both sides to pull away from the other. Austin began to employ more high-risk passing phases, while the hits coming from the Houston defense got more and more physical. It was visible to fans on multiple occasions that tensions were running high amongst the players on the field.

With the help of a few Austin penalties, Houston was able to force its way deep into the Elite's territory, utilizing their signature "ground and pound" style of forward-oriented attacks, with Tight-Head Prop Charlie Connolly impressing many with his rugged style of play along the way. After a few exciting hits and some awe-inspiring displays of strength (don't skip leg day, kids), Alex Elkins was able to bully his way over the try line, drawing the first blood of the half and giving his team the 10-nil lead. A second conversion attempt by Windsor would go unsuccessful.

With their hopes of victory on the line, the Elite must have decided to take a page out of the SaberCats book, taking advantage of a few ill-timed penalties by the home team to put themselves in position inside the 22. Just as the 'Cats did to them minutes before, the Elite used their forwards to methodically gain ground, before a hard charging run from 'Big' Ben Mitchell put them on the board for the first time all game.

With the time remaining beginning to wane, each team began looking for that big splash play to put them over the top, with some crowd-rousing runs from either side seeming to fall just short every time. Austin was eventually able to find themselves inside the 'Cats 22 once again, but the home team were able to make a defensive stand that resulted in a turnover. Unfortunately, a box kick attempt by the 'Cats to clear it out was blocked, giving Elite reserve Aden McMullen the opportunity to scoop and score for the try, putting Austin ahead for the final time at 14-10.

Despite a last-minute attempt by the 'Cats to come away with the victory shortly after, the final whistle eventually blew on a penalty, ending the game in favor of the Elite.

While the final result may have been disappointing to those in attendance, there were still plenty of elements the 'Cats could walk away with while holding their heads up high. Mainly, their big play ability. This team has so many players, from Windsor to Trouville, to Vici and Esdale among many others who can give defenses hell all by themselves, and it certainly showed up on Friday night. And when they're in-sync with one another, it's an all-around nightmare.

Second was the physical nature of their defense inside the 22, which the arrival of new Defensive Coach Neil Kelly is sure to help improve even more. Austin's backs were able to work fast in the passing game, but more often than not they were left without an answer at the try-line door thanks to Houston's stout refusal to yield.

While the clouds may have briefly darkened the night over Constellation Field, the future is sure to be bright in Houston.

GAME STATS:

Houston SaberCats

Tries- Zach Pangelinan (1), Alex Elkins (1)

Conversions- Sam Windsor 0/2

Austin Elite

Tries: Ben Mitchell (1), Aden McMullen (1)

Conversions: Mitch Romera 2/2

Masters.com

The big question for 2019: Will Tiger win a major this year? Showing no issues with his back, Tiger got stronger as the year went along in 2018. In fact, he closed out with a bang, winning the Tour Championship Tournament, proving he can compete with the young guns. What follows is my bold predictions for the Majors and other things to watch for in 2019.

The Masters-April 11-14: Rory McIlroy

Last year the golfing world cried when Sergio Garcia put the green jacket on Patrick Reed's shoulders. The fans will be happy to see anyone but Reed win this year at Augusta National, and no one will be happier to take the green jacket from Captain America than Rory McIlroy. Rory told the press that he will focus on playing more golf in the states this year, as well as playing the week before every major, something that he has never done before. And since he has changed to a spider putter, his putting, long a weak part of his game, has made tremendous strides. With just a decent week with the flat-stick, Rory will complete his career grand slam at the Masters.

PGA Championship-May 16-19: Matt Kuchar

A different look for the PGA Championship this year, as it changes from the last major of the year to the second. The tournament is headed to the big apple, where Bethpage Black hosts the tournament for the first time. Bethpage Black was the host of 2 US Opens (2002, 2009) as well as the Barclays (2012, 2016).

With massive crowds likely on hand, the prediction here is that they will be chanting KOOOOOCH on Sunday. Mr. calm, cool and collected will finally break through to win his first major.

Kuchar's great ball-striking and tremendous putting are a good fit at Bethpage, where the fairways and greens are relatively small. Kuchar has already won twice this season, with a win in Mexico at the Mayakoba Classic and the Sony Open in Hawaii, so he looks to be in good form already. If that form keeps up, it will be Matt Kuchar hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy on May 19th.

US Open-June 13-16: Tiger Woods

Pebble Beach hosts the US Open this year, and the scoring should be much lower than last year's debacle at Shinnecock Hills. Pebble Beach plays into the games of two of the most prominent golfers in the world: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Tiger looks to get his first major win since 2008. In the 2010 US Open Tiger finished T-4 here and won in 2000 by 15 strokes. Pebble sets up for Tiger's game, and there is no better time for Tiger to show he is back than at a course which he eats up. Tiger's "frenemy", Phil Mickelson, also loves the coast of Cali and is looking to breakthrough for his career grand slam on his birthday. It would not be a shock to see Tiger and Phil battling it out on Sunday just like old times. No one is better at closing tournaments than Tiger Woods, and if he has the lead going into the back nine on Sunday, Tiger looks to add another major win to his milestone.

The Open Championship-July 18-21: Xander Schauffele

This is going to be the year of Xander Schauffele. He already won the first tournament of the year at Kapalua and really has no flaws in his game. He hits it long and low along with a phenomenal short game. Last year at The Open, Xander finished 2nd to Molinari and in 2017 had a top-25 finish. Granted, Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale are different from Royal Portrush, but Xander enjoys taking the trip across the pond and playing links style golf. The Irish will be all over the home favorite Rory McIlroy, so Xander will be under the radar going into The Open. Do not be shocked to see Schauffele taking a sip out of the Claret Jug by the end of the weekend.

Other:

A new year brings along new rules for the 2019 PGA Tour season. One major rule change includes keeping the flagstick in while putting. Bryson DeChambeau is one of the few golfers who is using the new rule change to his advantage. We'll see whether the science in DeChambeau's head has gone too far, as the former SMU golfer looks to add on his 6th career win.

Another question mark going into the new year is what will happen to Jordan Spieth? Jordan had his first "human" year on the PGA Tour in his short but phenomenal career. Will he bounce back or will the yips haunt him for another year? 2019 is in store for some wild finishes and controversy, but with so much talent brewing, it could be the best year in golf history.

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