Life comes at you fast, and no one knows that better than the Cal rugby team. In a season filled with dominant victories and constant celebration, the Bears (18-2) could not hang on to a late lead in their final match, falling to the Life Running Eagles, 29-26, in the national championship after conceding a late try. Cal rallied from a 22-7 deficit to take the lead late in the match but ultimately couldn’t surmount the defending champions for the second year in a row.
At Stevens Stadium at Santa Clara University a year ago, the Bears were dismantled by the Running Eagles, 60-5.
This year, however, the game was more evenly matched. Life (11-0) struck first in the fifth minute, as fifth-year flyhalf Duncan Van Schalkwyk ran in an unconverted try to give his team an early 5-0 lead.
The teams held each other scoreless for the next 20 minutes before a yellow card on the Running Eagles for an illegal tackle changed the complexion of the match in the 26th minute. Cal quickly took advantage of the 15-on-14 advantage, as junior prop Damon Wiley broke the try zone in the 28th minute. Freshman flyhalf Sam Walsh converted to give the Bears a 7-5 lead.
Life quickly responded, despite being a man down, as freshman Julian Roberts ran in a try during the 32nd minute. Again, the Running Eagles missed the conversion kick, settling for a 3-point lead as halftime approached.
Still looking to take advantage with a man up, Cal quickly marched down the field. Wiley nearly scored a second try, but a knock-on call halted the Bears’ drive in the 37th minute. Seconds before the break, Cal was able to drive back down near the try zone, but a second knock-on call sent the teams into the locker room.
Life aimed to run away with the match in the second half. The Bears committed an infringement penalty, giving the Running Eagles a penalty try and automatic conversion in the 44th minute. Eight minutes later, Life senior Brian Muntanga extended his team’s lead to 22-7 with his unconverted try.
Cal seemed to be stalling, as penalties had both limited its offense and conceded careless points to the Running Eagles. Senior flanker and captain Nic Mirhashem was able to break the spell for the Bears, finally putting the team back on the board with a converted try in the 57th minute.
A yellow card on Life gave Cal another 15-on-14 situation. Mirhashem quickly took advantage, scoring his second try in the 62nd minute. Walsh again converted to bring the match to 22-21, and just like that, the Bears were back in it.
Wiley scored his second try in the 68th minute to retake the lead. Walsh’s kick, however, missed the mark for the first time all night, and the Bears led 26-22 with 12 minutes between them and the national championship trophy.
The Running Eagles, however, had their own agenda. Just five minutes later, Life advanced quickly down the field and scored what would be the winning try when junior Conner Mooneyham broke the zone. Fifth-year captain Mitchell Wilson converted the Running Eagles’ first and only conversion all match. It was a big conversion, giving Life a 3-point lead with seven minutes remaining.
In the last minute, the Bears were in position to tie with a long penalty kick, but Walsh’s attempt missed left, sealing the win for the Running Eagles. Life was the only American opponent that beat Cal in 2019, after a midseason visit to the Canadian powerhouse University of British Columbia ended in a 28-24 defeat for the Bears.
Cal only played four seniors in the final: Mirhashem, hooker/prop Jack Iscaro, lock/flanker Ben Casey, and flanker Cormac Heaney. With most of the core projected to return, the Bears are slated to be a top team again next season under the legendary Clark, a U.S. Rugby Hall of Famer.
Kunal Dutta cover’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].