The sun shining on beautiful Strawberry Canyon is always a great sight. Last weekend had a little something extra with eight Pac-12 schools competing for the Pac Rugby 7s Championship, with fans adding to the warm atmosphere.
The sun got even brighter for the Cal faithful Sunday afternoon as the trophy rose in the hands of senior flanker and captain Nic Mirhashem for the Bears’ sixth title in seven years.
Cal started the tournament Saturday with a sweet 50-0 victory over Stanford, a rival in every competition. The Bears cruised against USC, as well, with a 43-7 win. Only an easy mistake at the end prevented their second shutout of the day.
The most anticipated game of the pool play was between Cal and UCLA, as the teams fought for the No. 1 seed in Pool B.
A strong start from the Bears, with two tries from junior center Christian Dyer and a try and perfect three for three conversions from senior flyhalf/fullback Elliot Webb, carried Cal with a 21-0 lead at the half.
Another Dyer try responded to the Bruins first try of the game to hold the lead at 21. In the last two minutes, the Bruins capitalized on a loss of concentration by the Bears to cut the lead to a try, but the time ran out on them and the Bears ended the day with three wins, 26-19.
“It’s not enough to win the game — we have to play well,” said head coach Jack Clark. “We are never just going to say, ‘hey, we got the win, so everything’s OK’ — it wasn’t OK.”
The only downside of the game was the injury of senior fullback Troy Lockyear who was unable to finish the game because of an apparent problem with his hamstring.
The win against the Bruins made sure that Cal escaped a potential matchup against Arizona on Sunday, as the Wildcats swept Pool A to face the Bruins in the semifinal.
On Sunday, Cal shut out Arizona State, 36-0, with six tries from four different players. This victory was preceded by Arizona’s 17-12 win over UCLA to secure a rematch of last year’s final between the Bears and the Wildcats.
“Last year, we didn’t really have our entire team playing at the full force, so this year we really wanted to show off our skill level,” said fifth-year senior wing Zachary Tavenner.
The Bears jumped out of the gate with force as four tries, all converted by freshman flyhalf Sam Walsh, gave Cal a huge 28-0 first-half lead. Cal showed no daylight to Arizona who had trouble getting out of its own half.
“I think we got off to two really strong starts in the semi and the final; we were a little quiet in the second half of both games, but a good start matters and makes the other team chase you — there is not a lot of time,” Clark said. “I thought we did all right.”
In the second half, the Bears pulled their feet from the gas, but tries exchanged by both teams barely affected the final score, with Cal holding on to its first-half lead, 33-5.
“It’s definitely a great win for my final season,” Tavenner said. “This was really about us working as a team out there — we really came together at the final game and pulled it off.”
Tavenner became the man of the match with his two tries in the final, as most of the scores came from the Bears’ outrunning the Wildcats’ defense.
“We were a little disappointed to drop a game a year ago and so, happy to get back on the right foot with those guys,” Clark said.
The restarts, which Clark emphasized the importance of before the tournament, were substantially better compared to the previous tournaments. For Clark, however, the room for improvement is always there.
“I thought our kickers were giving the receivers, the chasers, a really good crack on the ball,” Clark said. “We thought we could have, we should have, caught more of those … just catch it, just jump up and catch it.”
The Bears wrapped up the fall 7s season with a perfect 17-0 record, and now, the team will regroup to carry the momentum to the 15s season.
“I’m not at my happiest when we are divided like this, with some of the guys in the 7s squad and some of them in the 15s — it will be really fantastic to be back together as a team working together,” Clark said.