Some takeaways from Cal rugby’s preseason opener? On the one hand, it was a rocky start for the more experienced guys. On the other hand, the underclassmen surpassed expectations. Conclusion (hands together): with the right mix of a team, the sky’s the limit.
At the West Coast 7s tournament this past Saturday, the Bears’ underclassmen squad — the mostly frosh-soph team — went unbeaten in their pool (pool B) and advanced to the cup final in which they lost to UCLA, 29-20.
Led by Cal’s star wing Sam Cusano, the more experienced squad, which did include four underclassmen due to injured or absent upperclassmen, had a tougher go of it in pool A, losing to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and UCLA before rallying back Saturday afternoon to trounce San Diego State and Arizona.
In pool B, Cal’s younger team first faced off with Arizona — a team that gave Cal a run for its money last year in the same tournament. The Bears set the tone early with a try in the second minute from the 5’10, 180-pound freshman from New York City, Nate Salter.
This was followed up in the fourth minute by a try from another freshman, Alex Brundage, a fullback/center from London in the UK. Both of these tries went unconverted. But Arizona wasn’t going to be put down easily.
In the second half, Arizona scored again, but Cal responded in the 10th and 13th minutes with tries from two Australian sophomores, Nathan Zylstra and Jake Broekhuizen. The Bears cemented the lead and won the game 22-19.
Cal’s younger squad moved onto Santa Clara, scoring two unanswered tries in the first half from juniors Garrett Kay and Brundage. In the second half, Max Clark, a freshman scrumhalf/wing from the UK, took it home with two more tries, helping the Bears to its second victory of the day 22-5.
Cal then beat USC 45-0.
In the finals, the Bears faced off with UCLA. Cal Freshman Cal Liebowitz — yes, his name is “Cal” — from Danville, California scored a try in the first minute. But that was all for Liebowitz in the first half.
The Bruins scored three unanswered tries before Clark punched one in right before half time. In the second half, it was the Cal show — Liebowitz led the team with two tries. But the Bruins scored a couple too, and the Bears couldn’t catch up from that three-try stretch in the first half, ultimately falling 29-20.
Despite their loss in the final, the Bears take away for the young Bears was ultimately positive.
“They played really well,” said head coach Jack Clark. “They stuck to their systems.”
When asked about how the underclassmen will factor into the regular-season roster, Clark prophesied, “When we come to 15 players, I expect there will be a pretty good sampling of the younger guys.”
In pool A, the experienced team started with a face-off against Cal Poly. The Bears set the rhythm with a try from Jack Gallagher and a try from sophomore stand-out Sam Walsh — who, as Clark mentioned, was one of the best players in the tournament.
Cal Poly scored one try halftime. In the second half, Max Schumacher, a freshman from Sacramento, scored a try, but things went downhill. Cal Poly dominated the second half with two unanswered tries, ultimately taking the game 19-17.
“We made critical errors,” Clark said. “We let the opposition back in the game and ultimately to victory.”
Against UCLA, Cal had a similar game tempo to their previous game— strong first half, with a defensively poor second half. The Bears and the Bruins both scored two tries in the first half, leaving things tied at halftime. But in the second half, the Bruins rallied with two more tries to take the 24-12 win.
“Fitness is definitely an issue for some of our guys,” Clark observed.
The most important factor of the Bruins game, however, is that Cal’s Cusano was injured. The Bears are hoping to have him back for the regular season.
“Sam is a resilient guy,” Clark said.
Moving forward, Cal is gearing up for another sevens tournament on Treasure Island on the weekend of Oct. 19, taking the lessons they learned this past Saturday to heart.
“We have to get better across the board,” Clark said, “I imagine we will.”
Jem Ruf covers men’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].