Cal gears up for national semifinals at Saint Mary’s

Karen Chow /File

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Cal rugby, after coasting through much of the regular season and currently sitting at a 17-1 record, is set to face a different challenge in the national semifinals. After advancing past the first two rounds at home, the Bears will visit St. Mary’s Stadium this Saturday at noon to face the Gaels for a spot in the national championship.

Although Cal is the first seed in the west region, Saint Mary’s will have the home-field advantage because Moraga was designated as a semifinal location.

The teams played in Cal’s regular season finale in Strawberry Canyon, with the Bears winning 29-19 after a 19-0 run erased an early deficit. It was Cal’s closest match score in D-1A play this season, and the victory allowed the Bears to replace the Gaels as the No. 1 team in the national rankings, which affected playoff positioning.

With the rematch set in Moraga, Cal is aware of the extra work needed to advance to the championship.

“Saint Mary’s is the favorite,” said head coach Jack Clark.

The Bears are coming off a 141-3 win against UC Davis in the round of 16 and a 61-16 victory against Arizona in the quarterfinal. The team self-admittedly played below standard in the quarterfinals, being held scoreless in the first 20 minutes and yellow cards forcing the team into playing with fewer players on the field.

“We weren’t very good (against Arizona),” Clark said. “We have a big semifinal, and we need to be more disciplined. We leaked tries when we were undermanned, and playing like that won’t get wins.”

Another issue in the postseason for Cal has been inconsistency in conversion kicks. After converting 18-for-21 against UC Davis, the Bears only converted 3-for-11 against Arizona. Early missed conversions in the Saint Mary’s match propelled Cal to a 19-10 deficit in the teams’ first matchup, and with a trip to the finals at stake, the Bears will need all the points they can muster.

“We gave Arizona too many opportunities,” said junior wing Sam Cusano. “It’ll be tough to get ready for Saint Mary’s, and we have a lot of preparation to do.”

To prepare for the heavier competition, Cal is expected to make at least six lineup changes to the starting 15 from the Arizona match, with reserves freshman flyhalf Sam Walsh and sophomore lock Sam Golla among those being considered to start after strong late-season performances.

Saint Mary’s will return home after a dominant 71-12 win against Brigham Young in Witter Rugby Field, as the Gaels led wire-to-wire and only surrendered one try. In the round of 16, Saint Mary’s defeated Grand Canyon 74-12 in Moraga.

In the east region, Life University will face Lindenwood in the other semifinal. Last year, Cal lost 60-5 to Life in the national championship after defeating Lindenwood 43-22 in the semifinals.

“We have some great veterans here,” Cusano said. “We have strong leadership, which will help on the semifinal stage.”

The postseason final will take place at Stevens Stadium in Santa Clara. A win would be the 25th rugby 15s championship for Clark, a U.S. Rugby Hall of Famer, in 36 years of coaching the Bears.

Kunal Dutta cover’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].