After junior wing Sam Cusano’s last-second heroics against Saint Mary’s, Cal rugby is headed to the national championship. The Bears aren’t focused on celebrating a remarkable victory.
“The semifinal is behind us now,” said head coach Jack Clark. “We are on to the next opponent and challenge.”
The next challenge will be in the biggest stage of college rugby, as Cal (18-1) is set to face Life (10-0) on May 4 at 6 p.m. The teams squared off in the championship last year as well, with the Running Eagles dismantling the younger, less experienced Bears 60-5. Last year, Clark started seven underclassmen in the final. Six of those seven, including Cusano, all started in the semifinal Saturday along with two seniors to round out a more experienced group for this year’s iteration.
“Of course, experience is important,” Clark said.
In the postseason, top-seeded Cal began by easily blowing past UC Davis 141-3, led by sophomore lock Sam Golla’s four tries out of a total of 21 in the match.
The quarterfinal match against Arizona was a greater struggle for Cal, facing a 6-0 deficit at the 20-minute mark after an error-prone start. The Bears, however, rebounded with a big run to end the half before overwhelming the Wildcats 61-16, behind two tries apiece from senior fullback Troy Lockyear and freshman hooker Nathan Zylstra.
Cal advanced to the championships after a thrilling semifinal at Saint Mary’s. The Bears nearly blew a 21-10 halftime lead, but Cusano ran in a try from 20 meters out with no time left on the clock. The theatrics saw the team ultimately win 28-24. The Bears will have less room for error against Life.
“We performed well in some areas, but inconsistently,” Clark said. “We will need to produce our best rugby Saturday.”
Cal produced a great performance on conversions against Saint Mary’s, as freshman flyhalf Sam Walsh converted all four of his attempts, much needed for the tight scoreline. This followed the quarterfinal in which the Bears only converted three of 11 attempts. Against the Running Eagles, the second-ranked team in the nation, points are expected to be at a premium, making each conversion kick more valuable than ever.
Life is unbeaten this season, coming off a 27-19 win against conference rival Lindenwood. Senior lock Daemon Torres had a team-high two tries, including one to ice the match in the last minute.
“We have a lot of film study to do,” Cusano said. “It will take a lot to get this victory, but I think the guys will be ready.”
The championship, in addition to featuring the same two teams as last year, will again be hosted in Stevens Stadium at Santa Clara University. The Bears have not had to travel far this postseason, with the first two rounds at home and the last match in Moraga.
With a victory Saturday, this year’s rugby team can become the 100th national champion in Cal history, 29th in 15-a-side.
Kunal Dutta cover’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].