In April of last year, the Bears found themselves in a tough position against Saint Mary’s: down by 3 with less than a minute to go. It was the national semifinals and a trip to the championship was on the line.
But in Cal’s moment of great need, Sam Cusano came to the rescue, streaking down the field and scoring a breathtaking try. Cal came away with the win, but it was a close match — a very close match. Saint Mary’s has always been a strong opponent, and definitely an opponent worthy of serious time in the video room.
This Saturday, the Gaels will come up to pay the Bears a visit at the Cal Invitational — not for a game against Cal, but for a game against Navy. This isn’t particularly special, as the Bears get to watch video footage of all the major teams, but this weekend, Cal will still kill two birds with one stone. The team will be able to watch the No. 4 Gaels live against No. 5 Navy early in the day, and will play No. 13 Army in the afternoon.
Army has had a solid season, but has not recorded a Division 1-A game since November 2019, making this weekend’s match against Cal its first in four months. Army is a bit of a mystery, though it seems safe to say the Bears are a little more prepared for the match; Cal has been playing 15s matches since January, including matches against the formidable University of British Columbia.
The last time the Bears hosted the Cal Invitational in spring 2018, Cal beat Army 50-41. This was by no means a comfortable win for the Bears and speaks to the potential quality of the Army team. Earlier this year, Army lost to No. 5 Lindenwood 27-10 — a relatively close game against a top-10 team. Due to its four-month hiatus, the state of the Army team may appear uncertain, but the Bears seem to know what’s coming.
“Army is what you expect them to be, very physical in contact. They are a tough, straight-forward side,” said head coach Jack Clark. “They play to these strengths by design. We might know what’s coming, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop.”
So far this season, Cal has been virtually unstoppable, save for a loss to UBC last weekend. In Vancouver, the Bears started a second-string lineup, which likely factored into the loss. This choice by the coaching staff and the second-stringers’ willingness to throw themselves into a brutal match demonstrate the continuous desire of the Cal team to improve. The coaching staff is not taking this hunger for granted.
“I’m not surprised by it, but I’m grateful our team wants to improve,” Clark said. “The boys are very honest with our performances — they want to get better. It makes it fun.”
Aside from the actual rugby, however, there’s another aspect of playing Army that’s important to the Bears: Army’s quality in character. Character is an integral part of the Cal program. After a fight during the UBC game Feb. 22, the Bears’ coaching staff may be looking to solidify an ethos of sportsmanship.
“I think it’s a blessing to have a team of Army’s class to compete against. We need to play the best and better teams to develop and reach our potential,” Clark said. “Beyond wanting to win, I want to see how we compare with them, not just on the scoreboard, but with regards to the cut of the man.”
Jem Ruf covers men’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].