Cal rugby protects Strawberry Canyon against Navy in quarterfinal

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Phillip Downey/File

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Sports are generally stressful for players, coaches and fans alike. It’s not unusual to hear a doctor forbid a fan with heart problems to watch sporting events because of the nature of excitement that tends to occur. Cal rugby’s matches, however, are known to be an exception — blowout wins are the norm.

Not last Saturday.

On Cal Day, the Bears wore the blue and gold for one last time in Strawberry Canyon, thinking about nothing but leaving their home field undefeated and advancing to the national semifinals. The Midshipmen had other ideas, pushing Cal to the brink of elimination, but the Bears prevailed, 33-27.

Navy raced out to an early lead by way of an unconverted try, 5-0. The Bears’ unusually slow offense struggled mightily with turnovers, while their defense held their own. Senior wing Zachary Tavenner put up Cal’s first points with a try to tie the game, 5-5, in the 26th minute.

The low-scoring first half concluded with both teams exchanging the lead three times. Cal’s other senior wing Justin Dunn responded quickly to a Navy penalty kick, but the last words of the half were again from the Midshipmen, as they took the lead with a converted try, 15-10.

The Bears tied their lowest-scoring first half with 10 points, equaling their total from a loss to UBC on the road in Vancouver. Navy was also just the second team to lead at the half against Cal this season, with UBC also being the other.

While Cal has always sought to refine its play throughout the season, Saturday’s showdown was strictly about the score.

Trailing at halftime is uncharted territory for the Bears, but they ensured that Strawberry Canyon remained Bear Territory in the second half — in what was a true thriller for years to remember.

“I think we were there effort wise but when it comes to ball handling, you have to come along with your mind as well,” said fifth-year No. 8 Thomas Robles. “Ultimately, we were ready, focused, prepared — and come second half, we just dialed it in.”

The Bears came out anxious to score points as they tried to force their way into the try zone against the tough armada of Midshipmen, rather than play at their usual fast pace. For a while,  a handful of fumbled balls and a lack of clean passing slowed Cal’s offense. Finally, junior hooker/prop Jack Iscaro punched the ball in to tie the game at 15 apiece.

Navy, however, responded with an unconverted try after a couple missed tackles on Cal’s end, as star senior No. 8 Connor McNerney ran down the field under the disappointed cries of Cal fans to take the lead back. McNerney, who is also the kicker for the Midshipmen, ended the day with a game-high 12 points.

Following McNerney’s try, the Bears finally burst out their true colors. With three unanswered tries down the stretch of the second half, Cal’s lead expanded to 30-20.

But the Midshipmen showed everyone why they came to Strawberry Canyon with an upset in mind, as they snatched the ball cleanly from a scrum and sprinted up the field for what ended up being their final try. A successful conversion by McNerney cut the lead to just three, 30-27.

The rest of the way was hard to watch for everyone — fans and players alike, even with a healthy heart — as the season was dangling on the line.

With only two minutes left in the game, the referee all but sealed Navy’s fate, whistling the Midshipmen for a penalty. But one last key decision was left to be made.

Head coach Jack Clark shouted from the sideline to go for the 3 points with a penalty kick. It was a stressful moment, largely because Cal had already left a ton of points on the table as three different players missed a total of six conversion kicks.

“That was a mistake,” Clark said. “It’s my fault. Ken (Kurihara) should have been kicking those balls.”

Junior flyhalf/center Elliot Webb, who had a good performance against Grand Canyon the previous week by making 6 of 9 conversion kicks, took the ball in his hands. Webb had subbed in only seven minutes before this crucial kick. But his conversion would extend the lead to six, 33-27.

A try alone wouldn’t be enough for Navy in the last two minutes but a successful conversion kick after the try would complete the upset — the ideal dream for the Midshipmen, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Having survived this scare, Cal will now have a short trip to Moraga, California — after D1A College Rugby’s last-minute change in the brackets for travel purposes — to face Lindenwood, who shocked No. 1-seeded St. Mary’s on the road with an 43-22 upset.

Can Sarioz covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @can_sarioz