Out of hibernation: Bears edge out Cougars in season opener

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399 days. That’s how long the Cal rugby team has waited to play since defeating Army 62-22 at Witter Rugby Field last year. And who better to welcome the Bears back than familiar foe BYU?

According to head coach Jack Clark, players were “anxious to play” during the prolonged offseason. The team has been training for the last 10 weeks with no timetable in sight and, understandably, is still shaking off some rust.

Saturday was the first time Cal and BYU met since facing each other in the 2016 Penn Mutual Varsity Cup national championship, during which the Bears claimed a historic 40-29 win. Cal picked up where it left off, downing the Cougars 37-28 in a thrilling sequence of back-and-forth scoring. Five members of the blue and gold scored tries, highlighted by UK senior wing Marcus Shankland, who posted a hat trick on the day.

Although it wasn’t the prettiest of performances, the Bears held the lead for almost the entire match. They went up 10-0 in the first 10 minutes following scored tries from juniors Jason Severance and Nicholas Bloom. BYU inched within three at 14-17, but tries from Shankland and senior scrumhalf Ken Kurihara had the Bears holding a formidable 27-14 lead at halftime.

The second half looked slightly different, as the Cougars scored 14 unanswered points in 18 minutes to go up 28-27; this marked BYU’s only lead of the day. The Bears were quick to bounce back, however. Tries from sophomore scrumhalf Max Clark and Shankland closed the book on the Cougars.

“It wasn’t the greatest of Cal rugby performances,” Clark said. “I’m trying to temper our performance objectives and have a bit of joy to be able to get out there and compete again.”

Despite the gutsy win, Clark sees potential in his players.

“It’s a pretty good team. Most of the positions are covered with a little depth,” Clark said. “The two that started at scrum half and fly half [Kurihara and Sam Walsh] are starters. Both locks are really good. The backs are the strength of the team. It’s a pretty good team.”

The blue and gold and the visitors have a lot of history, having faced each other in 10 championship finals between 2006 and 2016. It would not be an understatement to say that BYU is the Cal ruggers’ all-time greatest foe. The Bears have claimed the better record over that span, winning six out of the 10 meetings on the pitch.

Next Saturday, Cal will be on the road for a bout against Saint Mary’s in Moraga, California. The match will be the second of three scheduled contests in this abbreviated, unprecedented season.

Max Frincke covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].