The omnipresent roaring wind suddenly died to a respectful whisper, so as not to disturb Saturday’s deciding moment.
Central Washington’s Reuben Ludick, who had already missed two kicks on the day, lined up for his fifth and final try. With the score 14-13 in favor of the Cal rugby team (19-2) with no time left in the match, this kick would quickly remove the sting that the Wildcats felt since they lost the lead with eight minutes left in the first half. If this kick sailed through, though, those other two misses wouldn’t matter, and Central Washington (7-4) would punch its ticket to the Varsity Cup Rugby Championship in Provo, Utah — breaking the logjam of Cal-BYU at the top of the collegiate rugby universe.
If this kick sailed through, the Bears would have had no one to blame but themselves. They had both the ball and the lead with the match winding down, but lost the ball due to penalty deep in enemy territory and attempted to grind out the win on defense. It would have been a workable strategy, had the otherwise stalwart Cal defense not suddenly sprung a fatal leak. The Wildcats sprinted all the way to their opponent’s 22-meter line, in what may have literally been the blink of an eye, and earned a penalty kick to win the game.
“We’re on their goal line there, and I don’t know that it was the best tactic to try and let the ball go — we should have kept it right there with the forwards and closed out that game,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “We opened the door for a penalty and that penalty turned into another penalty, and we gave them a chance to win the game.”
No matter what happened in that quiet moment Saturday, the semifinal would be the Bears’ last game played at Witter Rugby Field this year — the final time many of the team’s seniors would adorn the blue and gold in front of the home crowd. All players, therefore, found added gravity in their performances and played their hearts out for their departing teammates.
“For me, personally, the game was dedicated to one of the seniors — Scott Walsh,” said junior flanker Thomas Robles. “Overall, it was an emotional moment for them, and I just had to give it my all to give them the outcome that they deserved.”
But, it all would have been for naught, if this kick sailed through.
With about eight minutes left in a tight 14-13 match with intensity that can be loosely compared to a street fight, a brief timeout granted both teams an instant to collect themselves. With collective hands on knees and heavy breathing in the most significant moment of the season, the Bears were treated to an exploration in situational irony when the loudspeaker provided the score of the other national semifinal game, which had just gone final.
“Arkansas State 20, BYU 68.”
Those damn Cougars.
Before the main match, a team of mixed non-starters had suited up early, quickly dispatching the Norcal Small College All-Stars, 70-19. They had certainly done their part and warmed up the field for the First 15. But, it was now on those 15 to end the home season the right way.
Yet they assuredly wouldn’t have, if this kick sailed through.
There was a brief moment before Ludick kicked his fateful penalty shot — one that was consumed entirely by emotion. Cal players, suddenly realizing that their season was about to be cut short because of a simple lapse in defensive awareness, stomped the ground, cursed and fought back tears. They came together around their seniors, putting arms around each other to prove that, despite this heartbreaking loss, they were still brothers.
The kick sailed wide left.
Utah, here come the Bears.
Austin Isaacsohn covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].