For most sports teams, a season featuring a myriad of lineup changes, roster adjustments and untimely injuries usually results in struggles and a decrease in quality play.
Since the end of the 2016 season when it captured the national title, the Cal rugby team has been hit with it all — the loss of several talented upperclassmen, numerous lineup rearrangements and the loss of key players to long-term injuries.
But somehow, the Bears find themselves in the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Rugby Championship semifinal against Penn State, just two wins from capturing a second-straight national title.
The injuries and lineup uncertainty have definitely caused some problems for the team over the course of the season. Well-known for its ability to dominate the possession battle with clear and decisive passes, runs and strategy, Cal has shown some uncharacteristic lapses in execution. Against Saint Mary’s, the team’s defense collapsed late and allowed the opposition to snatch a win from Cal.
But after a comprehensive 71-7 beatdown of Clemson in the quarterfinal that displayed the team’s high caliber on both sides of the ball, the Bears look poised and ready for their upcoming challenge against a very dynamic Penn State squad.
Defensively, it will be a tough assignment to contain the Nittany Lions’ potent mix of athleticism and skill. Cal must be ready to be efficient and productive on the offensive side in order to stay ahead.
“One thing that jumps out is to look after our possessions, and if we hang on to the ball, we have a chance to score some points ourselves,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “We’ve had a tendency to be pretty reckless with the ball, and I don’t mind being a little adventurous, but sometimes we’ve been pretty speculative and ended up turning it over an unhealthy amount of times.”
Throughout the season, Clark has experimented with various forms of a lineup comprised of both experienced upperclassmen and talented underclassmen who have filled the void left by graduating seniors. And while many questions were asked of the readiness of Cals frosh-soph players to step up in big games, they have since been quelled.
Included in the group of standout underclassmen on the offensive side are freshmen winger Sam Cusano and scrumhalf Keanu Andrade, who have been tapped for starting positions regularly this season.
Cusano’s excellent speed on the outside has earned him numerous scoring opportunities this season, and his ability to convert on these chances is a big reason why he has cemented a starting spot.
As scrumhalf, Andrade has continuously displayed clear decisiveness while performing a crucial role as the connection between the front and back lines. But compared to others in his position, Andrade has proven his unique ability to push forward on attacks and score tries for the Bears.
Late in the season, freshman Thomas Spradling and sophomore Nic Mirhashem emerged as reliable flankers on a back line which has been occupied by various players. With minimal starting experience with the varsity team this season, the two young Bears will be pushed to the limit on Saturday.
“(The underclassmen) have played in a lot of big games now, and they have done pretty well __ we’re hopeful that they can hold up in the biggest two games of the season,” Clark said.
In the Cal seniors’ final home game, it will be the team’s rising talents who will be looked upon to provide that crucial extra burst of energy to combine with the knowledge and experience of the upperclassmen. Coming to the close of this unusual season for the Bears, it is only fitting that the team rely on this surprisingly effective combination which has already carried it this far.
Nikhil Bhumralkar covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].