Bears barrel through obstacles, finish with 26th title

Michael Gethers/File
Flyhalf James Bailes and his fellow seniors capped their Cal careers with an undefeated campaign despite a trying season.

One of the Cal rugby team’s mottos is, “Ask for nothing, grateful for everything.”

Never did the mantra carry more weight than in 2011.

Early in the season, it seemed everything was being taken away from the team. The Bears could not host home games on Witter Rugby Field, would have their training schedule rearranged, and were slated to be stripped of varsity standing within intercollegiate athletics.

The team even lost some highly respected personnel early in the season when co-captain Jason Law and freshman Tiaan De Nysschen suffered severe injuries during the Pac-10 tournament on Jan. 15.

“I probably was at my absolute lowest right then,” coach Jack Clark said.

These numerous distractions threatened to loosen the defending national champions’ stronghold on the title. But the

Bears refused to relinquish their crown.

“We kind of made a pact that we wouldn’t change anything,” co-captain Derek Asbun said earlier in the year. “We wouldn’t change the way we played. We wouldn’t change the values of our team.”

The battle did not end when the team was reinstated in early February, as the Bears still had to contend with the opponents on the pitch.

A week after receiving news of reinstatement, Cal (27-0) faced its first real test on the field against British Columbia, which significantly outplayed the Bears in the first half and held a 13-7 edge at intermission. In the pouring rain on a muddy San Francisco field, the Bears dug in their cleats and mounted a gritty comeback. A late try by Tom Rooke and a seemingly improbable conversion by flyhalf James Bailes gave Cal the 21-13 win.

“We pulled out against all odds, it seemed like,” co-captain Blaine Scully said. “It’s kind of us.”

The Bears rode that momentum into conference play, routinely decimating opponents. Clark’s squad averaged a 67-point margin of victory over divisional foes.

St. Mary’s provided the only legitimate CPD competition for the Bears in the regular season. Even while allowing the Gaels to dictate the game’s pace in their April 10 dust-up, Cal emerged a 60-34 victor and secured the top position in the Pacific.

Despite their impressive score lines, the Bears had yet to “play to their potential,” according to Clark.

The next weekend, however, everything came together for Cal. In the national semifinals, the squad put together a complete performance to take down Utah, 62-14, and set up a meeting with BYU.

In their final challenge of the year, the Bears had to travel to Utah to defend their national crown against what was heralded as the best Cougar team in history.

Cal woul clear that hurdle with a 21-14 triump, in which the Bears contained the Cougars’ big guns and frustrated BYU into committing penalties while remaining disciplined and organized.

As they sang Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” with medals around their necks and a trophy in the air, Cal’s players savored the rewarding end result of a taxing campaign.

“After a year like that where it’s just an uphill battle the whole way, it felt right that we came out on top,” Scully said. “Coach before the game said, ‘I don’t feel like anything can hurt us.’”

Christina Jones covers rugby.