Imperfectly Perfect: Cal goes 3-0 at Dennis Storer Classic

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The Cal rugby squad left the Dennis Storer Classic with a perfect 3-0 record — defeating the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs 48-3 and the UC San Diego Tritons 59-7 Saturday, before beating the UCLA Bruins on Sunday afternoon 19-8. But the key takeaway for the weekend is that not all perfect records mean that the team is perfect, especially when the team aspires to win a national championship.

On Saturday, the Bears started many of their reserves against UC Santa Cruz, including freshmen Nate Salter, a flyhalf who scored two tries, Max Schumacher and Michael Puckett.

Generally, the underclassmen dominated the match; at halftime, Cal was leading the Banana Slugs 29-0 — with tries from hooker Nathan Zylstra, wing Nick Bloom, flanker Jason Severance, flanker Jake Broekhuizen, all of whom are sophomores, and Salter. UC Santa Cruz would ultimately be only able to score 3 points, leaving the score at 48-3.

Against UCSD, the starting lineup was a little more diverse, though still consisting largely of underclassmen. Sprinkled in among freshmen like Callum Janis, Alex Brundage and Marco Caramanico were seniors Ken Kurihara, Jack Weigold and Owen Duvall.

Despite its relative youth, however, the Cal team dominated the match against the Tritons, conceding only one try in the fifth minute, which was quickly nullified with three tries before halftime, all converted by Kurihara. The score was 28-7 at the break.

In the second half, the Bears cranked up the heat. Gavin Janis, a center, struck the first blow with a try in the 23rd minute, which was converted by his brother, Callum (this was the first time Gavin, a junior, and Callum, a freshman, have played a rugby match together at Cal). The Bears scored five tries in the second half alone, sealing the victory over the Tritons, 59-7.

Ultimately, it appears the Bears saw Saturday’s games as opportunities to get the underclassmen some experience in 15s rugby before the regular season fully hits; the 13 freshmen on the team all got some playing time, all making their Cal rugby 15s debuts.

In a statement to Cal Bears, Salter said, “A lot of the freshmen stepped up and it was good for everyone to get a chance to play today. There are a lot of things to work on, but for tomorrow, our main goal is to improve upon where we ended today and take it a step further.”

Indeed, the biggest challenge for Cal came Sunday as the Golden Bears faced off against the Bruins in Wallis Annenberg Stadium. It was clear all weekend that the Bruins would be Cal’s fiercest opponent of the tournament. Thus, the Bears started more upperclassmen heavyweights, like junior All-American Jack Manzo, in order to assure a victory. But the Bruins did not go down easily.

At halftime, the score was 3-0, with UCLA leading with a penalty kick. In the 25th minute, junior wing Marcus Shankland got Cal on the board with an unconverted try. But UCLA fought back, scoring a try in the 33rd minute and putting Cal back on its heels. Fortunately, the blue and gold were awarded a penalty try in the 36th minute — giving them some much needed momentum in the second half.

In the 40th minute, Shankland responded again with a try and a successful conversion by Kurihara. The Bears won 19-8.

The coaching staff was not completely thrilled with Cal’s Sunday performance, despite the win. Indeed, without some key players like Sam Cusano, Sam Walsh and Christian Dyer, this 15s season may prove to be a real test of the depth of the Cal team — whether or not underclassmen and second-stringers will really step up against quality programs like Life Chiropractic.

Head coach Jack Clark, in a statement to Cal Bears, said, “I thought we were only ok throughout the weekend. Maybe understandable on Saturday with so many underclassmen in the lineups, less palatable Sunday with a mostly experienced team on the field. Give credit to UCLA for making it so difficult on us. It’s early for sure, but we are behind where we should be. We need urgency until we catch up.”

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