PITTSBURG — Heading over to Cincinnati, Ohio on the heels of a comeback victory in the conference championship game, the Pittsburg State club rugby team was doing something no other Gorillahead squad had done in the past.

For the first time in school history, Gorillahead earned a spot in the national tournament this past season and took a trip to the queen city on Nov. 16 to compete in the national tournament.

“It was huge to have that strong senior leadership this season,” PSU rugby player Dylan Ashcraft said. “There were a lot of seniors and upperclassmen in general who stepped up this year. I think we lacked that in the past, but they were huge this season. They helped coach the younger players up and built a system for the team.”

Gorillahead claimed their spot in the sweet 16 after defeating No. 14 Missouri S&T 31-28 in the Gateway Conference championship game after trailing 28-5 in the 60th minute.

“It was excellent to be ranked No. 16,” Ashcraft said. “We always seemed to be overlooked and never really received the credit we deserve, so it was nice to catch everybody by surprise and win the conference. We were always kind of the underdogs in our conference, so getting that ranking was huge for us. It also sets a good standard for the younger guys who are coming through the system.”

Following the win, Pittsburg State hit the road for nationals with heavy hearts and extra motivation.

“We lost our team captain Patrick Mercer in a car accident last year and that was really the motivating factor for a lot of us,” Ashcraft said. “We really started putting our practices together more effectively and we really started working hard on and off the field.”

In the first game of nationals, Pitt State drew defending champions University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and lost 61-17.

“We were just really pumped up,” Ashcraft said. “It was the biggest thing Gorillahead has ever done. We got there and knew we were about to go up against the best team in the country and the defending national champions, but it motivated our team to the extreme and we were ready to knock the king off the mountain. It didn’t work out the way we wanted it to, but just getting a chance to play against a team like that was an incredible experience.”

Ashcraft said playing against the No. 1 ranked team in the country was eye opening.

“We definitely underestimated them a little bit,” Ashcraft said. “Film can be deceiving. We knew that they were going to be great. They hadn’t lost a game in a couple of years and they still had a lot of the same guys from that championship team. Playing against them was unlike any other team we had faced. They were really big, fast and well coached.”

It was an early exit for Pitt State in the tournament, but they believe it will be something to build on moving forward.

“The entire weekend was pretty surreal,” Ashcraft said. “We played good rugby, and it didn’t go our way, but we fought hard. We were able to put up 15 points on Whitewater, which is a lot more than some of their opponents can say, so to get on the board and compete alongside them was awesome.”

Gorillahead finished out the year with a 6-6 record and held their heads high after laying it all on the line for the team, the school and their former teammate Mercer.

“This season we set enormous expectations for ourselves,” Ashcraft said. “Our ultimate goal was to reach the national championship, but to make it as far as we did really says something about Gorillahead. I couldn’t be more proud of this group. These guys are my brothers. That’s just the way rugby is. It builds that love among teammates unlike any other sport.”

 — Jordan Buckamneer is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at jbuckamneer@morningsun.net and follow him on Twitter @jbuckamneer.