In the dry desert sun, the Bears were away from their natural habitat — away from the cool, verdant hills of Strawberry Canyon. The Wildcats, on the other hand, were on their home turf. Undoubtedly they felt giddy among the cacti and half-dead shrubs, happy they could fight a Bear in their territory. But the spirit of a Bear is greater than its ambient environment, right? I mean, we must ask ourselves, which is the superior mammal: the Bear or the Wildcat?
This past weekend against Arizona, the Bears comfortably beat the Wildcats 55-13. The Bears kept the Wildcats scoreless in the first half, scoring four tries in 39 minutes. Notably, one of these tries was scored by senior wing standout Sam Cusano. During the 7s season in the fall, Cusano was brutally injured. He healed for months, and Saturday marked his official return to the team for the 15s season.
Cusano is a dynamic player — he was selected to the collegiate 7s All-American team in August — and his return will undoubtedly bolster the Bears’ spirits before some bigger games later this spring, including Saturday’s match against the University of British Columbia. Especially without another injured upperclassmen, Christian Dyer, the Bears are surely glad to have Cusano back in his leadership position.
“It was good to have Sam back with us. He’s an important part of the team for his play and, as importantly, his leadership,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “It’s going to take him awhile to regain his form, but he’ll get there.”
The Bears only conceded one try in the entire match, one scored in the 77th minute that was converted. The only other points scored by the Wildcats were two three-point penalty tries.
But the takeaway from the game was, predictably, mixed. Despite a strong performance, which was Cal’s eighth win of the 15s season, the coaching staff has its doubts.
“I appreciate our record is good, but we are a potentially better team than what we’re showing,” Clark said. “Our skills let us down occasionally and our decision making under pressure needs to improve.”
So far this season, the Bears haven’t played a team considered to be challenging. One could argue the first game against UCLA in the Dennis Storer Classic was close, but for the most part, the challenges Cal has faced have been mostly internal — struggling with inexperience, lack of support and dropped passes, among others.
But this Arizona game was a marker of how the season will start to change for the Bears. Indeed, from here on, the challenges will be external too; the games will get incrementally harder, the stakes incrementally higher.
The Bears are perfectionists: acutely aware of their faults and always striving for improvement. Even if a game is a blow out, Coach Clark will most likely offer a critique of his own team — that’s the culture of Cal rugby. But the question is: How far will their culture take them this spring?
Jem Ruf covers men’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].