Cal rugby wins PAC Rugby 7s Championship

Karen Chow/File

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Here are the facts. You’re at Stanford. It’s the semifinals. You’re down by two points at half. You’ve lost a key player to injury in the first few minutes. The opponent is the same team that injured one of your standout upperclassmen early in the season. You’ve been preparing to play this game all fall.

How do you react?

Here’s what could have happened this past Sunday at Steuber Rugby Stadium as the Bears faced off against UCLA in the semifinals of the PAC Rugby 7s Championship after a combined 125 points against Washington State, Utah and USC in pool play Saturday.

The Bears could have battled hard but still have fallen to a UCLA team that has beaten Cal twice this 7s season. After all, one of the team’s key players was injured early in the game — two others were injured on Saturday — and the team consisted of four underclassmen. Considering the trials the Bears have faced this fall, it would have been reasonable to lose — disappointing, but reasonable.

Then, there’s reality. The Bears shook off their 10-12 halftime deficit and dug in for a defensively excellent second half, allowing only one try in the 12th minute. Cal marched to victory with the support of upperclassmen in key moments, including a try each from juniors Marcus Shankland and Sam Golla, and a last-minute try by junior Seth Purdey.

The Bears battled to the end and demonstrated that when things are tough — perhaps even especially so — Cal rugby delivered. The Bears ultimately won the game 20-19, scraping by with a crucial semifinal victory over a strong opponent. And their weekend wasn’t even over.

After their victory over UCLA on Sunday morning, the Bears refocused and adapted for the championship game against Arizona.

The injuries of freshman Alex Brundage, who scored three tries in Saturday’s Utah game, and sophomore Sam Walsh, who had a try in each game on Saturday, were the impetus for Cal’s decision to switch tactics, hunker down and start bigger players in Sunday’s game — senior Thomas Spradling, sophomore Nathan Zylstra, junior Sam Golla and senior Keanu Andrade.

“We accepted a lot more contact than what we normally would want in a 7s game, but we took all that contact really on our own terms,” said head coach Jack Clark. “I don’t know if we were as fast around the park than what we’d normally be, but I do think we had some questions for Arizona that were hard for them to answer.”

On Sunday afternoon, Andrade ended up dominating the match with three tries in the first half — his powerful frame punching through the Arizona defense and getting the ball over the line. In the second half, junior Marcus Shankland scored a try with a conversion from freshman Max Schumacher.

Arizona was able to sneak one try in the last minute of the game, but that was not enough to overcome Cal’s 24-point lead. Cal won the championship 24-7 and won its seventh PAC 7s Championship in the past eight years.

“Having lost some key players prior to the competition and then losing Sam Walsh on Sunday, we were forced to start an unorthodox sevens team in the championship,” Andrade said. “It was our commitment toward playing big that allowed us to prevail over Arizona and UCLA.”

This tournament surely was a test of the Bears’ character. But more than that, it was a test of how well the Bears could adapt and overcome adversity.

This fall season has been by no means perfect, especially with injuries to upperclassmen including Sam Cusano and now the injury of Sam Walsh, whose diligence and preparation Clark described as “impeccable.”

Heading into the PAC 7s last week, the most important question for the young Cal team was: “How fast have they grown up?”

After how the Bears played last weekend — not just in their championship trouncing of Arizona, but in their narrow semifinal victory over a formidable UCLA team — it seems the answer to that question is simple: really fast. But as Cal heads into 15s season in the spring without Sam Walsh and other key players — yet again testing the Bears’ ability to adapt to changing lineups — the ultimate question may be: “How flexible can they be?”

Jem Ruf covers men’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].