With the Cal rugby team going into 2012 as young and inexperienced as it had been in recent memory, many expected that its win streak — which had grown to 63 games — would come to an end.
But no one thought it would end against Cal Poly.
The Bears saw the streak that spanned back to the 2009 season come to a screeching halt Saturday afternoon in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as the Mustangs stormed back from a late deficit to win, 22-20.
“They struggled a bit themselves, but they just kept playing,” said Cal coach Jack Clark. “They didn’t necessarily go out to defeat us today, but they didn’t need to do much.”
Cal (10-1) didn’t start any ruggers from its top side for the match, giving its reserves a chance see some playing time. Even though many of those reserves were starting for the first time in their careers at Cal, they didn’t reward Clark with any high intensity play.
Following a four-hour bus ride in the morning, Cal came out of the gate completely flat and uninspired, failing to generate any offense and playing without any aggression or conviction. The Bears’ defense held tough, but a plethora of handling errors and penalties kept Cal off the board.
“We were just kind of jogging around the field,” said freshman Michael Bush. “We like to play fast, and we didn’t really do that today. We really hurt ourselves.”
Cal Poly (6-2) scrumhalf Thomas Leecox was the first to find the try zone, scoring in the 36th minute. A conversion from Matthew Verga then gave the Mustangs a 7-0 lead.
The Bears quickly responded, and fullback Andre Coquillard punched in a try in the left corner three minutes later. Senior Alex Aronson then missed his conversion attempt, leaving the score 7-5 at halftime, the Bears’ first halftime deficit in 2012.
It was more of the same for Cal in the early part of the second half, as more penalties and sloppy ball handling kept the offense stagnant. A penalty kick from Verga followed by a try from David Schaefer gave Cal Poly a 15-5 lead with just over 20 minutes to play.
“We played much the way we trained this week, so maybe I should have selected a different team,” Clark said.
Clark then decided to bring in senior Danny Barrett and sophomore Pat Coleman to try to breathe some life into his squad but still stayed with mostly reserves. He initially got the result he wanted, as two consecutive tries brought the score to 15 apiece.
“(Barrett) definitely put a spark into our game, but we just weren’t there to finish it at the end,” Bush said.
Cal then looked like it would escape unscathed, grabbing its first lead of the game with eight minutes remaining on a try from sophomore Max Shaulis. Aronson missed his fourth straight conversion, but the Bears still held on to a 20-15 lead in the waning moments.
But the young Bears couldn’t finish things off, and a series of missed tackles and mental lapses allowed Cal Poly’s Andy Early to knot up the score at 20-20 with a try in the 80th minute. Verga put his conversion straight through the uprights, and the Mustangs were able to shock the Bears.
“Anytime you play a contest, you come away learning more and knowing more,” Clark said. “It was a pretty frustrating day at the office, but we’ve got to use this information as we go forward throughout the remainder of the year.”