The modern college rugby season can simply seem to be a prelude to the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Rugby Championship finals that is always predicted: Cal vs. BYU. But for about 60 minutes on Saturday, it looked like an at-home Army squad was ready to rewrite the story everyone was a little bit too eager to put in the books by beating Cal in the quarterfinals. The Bears, however, eventually rallied to nab a 41-29 win and book their spot in the semifinals.
The Black Knights dominated early in the game, taking a 22-7 lead with eight minutes left in the first half. Four different Army players scored tries in that first half, but they were only able to convert on the first one.
“We just looked a little wide eyed,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “We weren’t animated and into the contest. We just kind of watched them play. I told them at halftime, we have to stop watching them play and start playing a little ourselves.”
The 15-point deficit could have been disastrous going into the break, but freshman flanker Nic Mirhashem made a huge play to dictate the groove of the remainder of the match. With only four minutes left in the first half, Army had a line-out deep within its own territory. When neither of the locks from either team was able to grab the ball off the throw in, Mirhashem found it. He dived across the try-line holding the ball in both hands to secure the score. Senior Russell Webb followed that up with a whistle-beating try to end the half, and after senior Harry Adolphus and Webb each converted a try, the Bears went into the half only down by one point.
Mirhashem is the first freshman to start for Cal rugby in a playoff game in two years. It is hard enough for underclassmen to break into Clark’s starting lineup in the regular season, so starting in the playoffs is a true endorsement of Mirhashem’s play. Fittingly enough, his partner in first half scoring, Webb, was also a freshman starter for Cal in its narrow 2013 loss to BYU in the championship finals.
“There are a lot of guys who can put their hands up and play for this team,” Webb said. “I don’t think it’s a specific trait (for freshman starters), you have to give credit to our coaching staff for getting him ready. You have to congratulate Nic for staying motivated, and it was a great effort.”
The second half was another story entirely. Cal ratcheted up its defensive effort and held Army to one score. Adolphus scored a try and a penalty kick, with junior Connor Sweet and senior Anthony Salaber scoring tries as well, to round out a 20-7 margin in the half for the Bears.
“I thought our front row played pretty well, and after our front row, Anthony Salaber had a few good moments,” Clark said. “I don’t think most of our guys were at the top of their game, so in some ways it was a frustrating outing.”
The team will return to Witter Rugby Field next week for a semifinals matchup against Central Washington, which has dominated UCLA and Utah in its first two rounds of the playoffs.
Andrew Wild covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected]