Cal rugby, the top-ranked team in the country and the most successful college program in U.S. history, found itself struggling at home against a scrappy Arizona team, down 0-6 a full 20 minutes into the match with a spot in the semifinals at stake. The Bears had allowed two penalty kicks, accentuating an error-prone match.
“We gave up a lot of penalties,” said head coach Jack Clark. “I don’t know how good our discipline was.”
Cal was able to shake off its troubles, however, scoring five tries before halftime to take a lead it never relinquished. Senior fullback Troy Lockyear put the Bears on the board with two unconverted tries in the 21st and 24th minutes.
Senior flanker Nic Mirhashem and freshman scrumhalf Henry Poon added unconverted tries in the 28th and 31st minutes, respectively. Freshman hooker Nathan Zylstra was able to break the try zone just seconds before the first half ended, sending the Bears into the break 25-6 after a rocky start.
“Once we got the ball back, that was the key to victory,” said junior wing Sam Cusano. “We gave up too much possession in the beginning.”
Cal kept its foot on the gas after halftime, scoring three tries in the next 20 minutes coming from Cusano, junior center Christian Dyer and sophomore center Adam Roeske. Freshman flyhalf Sam Walsh converted Roeske’s try, giving the Bears a commanding 42-6 lead.
The Bears seemed to go back to their dominating ways, but yellow cards given to Mirhashem and freshman lock Max Murphy in the 54th and 62nd minutes, respectively, gifted the Wildcats a 15-on-13 opportunity for a few minutes. In response, Arizona’s Zachary Biggs broke the try zone in the 65th minute to cut the Cal lead to 42-11.
After Zylstra responded with a converted try to extend the lead in the 68th minute, Biggs quickly broke the try zone again with a one-man advantage, as Murphy was still stuck in the bin.
“There is no road for victory playing 13 or 14 versus 15,” Clark said. “We will need to improve. It was not great, but we were lethal from time to time and scored tries in bunches.”
It was too little, too late for the Wildcats, however, as tries by sophomore lock Sam Golla and junior scrumhalf Ken Kurihara ended the match, as Cal seemingly crushed Arizona, 61-16. The Bears faced more adversity, however, than the score suggests.
“We’re in single elimination,” Clark said. “This is no time to have a below-average performance. (The Wildcats) kept their shape well, but we need to watch the film and get better.”
There is, of course, room for improvement as the Bears move onto the national semifinals.
“We had more penalties and turnovers than we would’ve liked,” Cusano said. “When we had possession, we looked good. We didn’t have enough (possession) today.”
Saint Mary’s defeated Brigham Young, 71-12, to clinch the other semifinal spot in the west bracket. Although the Bears are the first seed in the west, they will travel to Moraga to face the Gaels on April 27 at noon, as Saint Mary’s Stadium was designated as the semifinal location. When the teams played each other March 30, Cal took down Saint Mary’s in Strawberry Canyon, snatching the No. 1 seed in D1-A from the Gaels.
“Saint Mary’s is a great team,” Clark said. “We have a big semifinal ahead of us.”
On the other side of the country, Life and Lindenwood advanced to the national semifinals. Last year, Cal lost to Life in the national championship, so a final rematch is still in play.
Kunal Dutta cover’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].