With less than a minute to go, Cal rugby found itself down, 24-21, its chances of another trip to the national championship in peril.
A final team push led to junior wing Sam Cusano breaking the try zone as time expired, and a conversion by freshman flyhalf Sam Walsh gave the Bears a 28-24 win against Bay Area rival Saint Mary’s on Saturday.
“We were really focused,” Cusano said. “This was a tough one to get ready and prepare for, but we were ready.”
With an error-prone quarterfinal against Arizona in which the team self-admittedly played below its usual standard, along with the semifinal taking place in enemy territory at the Saint Mary’s Stadium, the squad felt the pressure to play a strong match against the Gaels.
“Saint Mary’s is definitely the favorite,” said head coach Jack Clark before the match. “There is no time to have a below-average performance like (against Arizona).”
The Bears, likewise, started the match with an error, falling to a 3-point deficit in the fourth minute as the Gaels’ Sean Yacoubian converted a penalty kick.
Neither team, however, could score a try for the first 20 minutes until Cal rattled off two within six minutes, as sophomores hooker Jack Manzo and lock Sam Golla’s tries put the Bears on the board. Walsh converted both to give Cal a 14-3 lead by the 27th minute.
Tavite Lopeti’s try and Yacoubian’s conversion brought the Gaels closer in the 38th minute, but Walsh ran in and converted his own try in the closing seconds of the half, sending the Bears into the break with a 21-10 advantage.
The second half was a greater defensive struggle, as Saint Mary’s scored the first points of the half with Ronan Murphy’s try and Yacoubian’s conversion in the 58th minute.
Almost 20 minutes later, Yacoubian’s try and conversion gave the Gaels a 24-21 lead. With only three minutes remaining, Saint Mary’s seemed bound to advance to the championship as the Gaels were looking to shut down the Bears offense in the second half.
Strong team play from the Bears, however, allowed the team to march down the field, setting the stage for Cusano’s clutch score. With no time for the Gaels to rebound, Cal celebrated a return to the national championship after a perfect season in D1-A that led the team to the No. 1 overall seed.
“Our goal has always been to win the national championship,” said senior flanker and captain Nic Mirhashem. “We’re just taking it one match at a time.”
While the Bears only converted three of their 11 tries last week in the quarterfinal, Walsh converted all four tries in Saturday’s match, giving Cal a critical 8 points to escape past Saint Mary’s, which also converted all of its three tries.
Cal will face Life University in the national championship after Life defeated Lindenwood on Saturday in the east region semifinal by a score of 27-19. This will be a rematch of last year’s championship match, in which the Running Eagles dismantled the Bears, 60-5. Life will be the first playoff opponent Cal did not play in the regular season, with the games against UC Davis, Arizona and Saint Mary’s all being rematches.
The Bears will not have to travel far for the championship, as the title match is set for Saturday at Stevens Stadium in Santa Clara.
“We’ve had great leadership this season,” Cusano said. “Our experience is helping us now, and hopefully, it will carry us through.”
A victory in the finals would be the 25th rugby 15s championship for Clark, who has been coaching the Bears for the last 36 years and is a USA Rugby and Cal Athletics Hall of Famer.
Kunal Dutta cover’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].