With two whole weeks off after its season-ending victory over Saint Mary’s, Cal rugby has had plenty of time to reflect on the monumental task that awaits it: claiming its first officially recognized Division I-A rugby national title since 2011. The first step on that journey to glory comes this Saturday at noon against Central Washington in the West Region National Semifinals.
The Bears won the invitational Varsity Cup in 2016 and 2017, a tournament that was viewed as a national championship by some but is not officially recognized as a national title by USA Rugby. They played in two consecutive national championships in 2018 and 2019, losing both to Life University. The first was a devastating 60-5 blowout, and the second was a 29-26 heartbreaker that went down to the final minutes.
A DI-A champion is not listed for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, both of which saw schedules severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The expectations for the blue and gold are high this season: The team is the No. 1 seed in the west region going into the playoffs, and finished the regular season No. 1 in the College Rugby Association of America’s DI-A rankings.
“I back every single one of us to get the job done,” said team captain Sam Golla.
Golla cautioned, however, that it is too early to focus on the national championship. He said the team is taking it one week at a time, starting with No. 4 seed Central Washington.
“They are really physical at the tackle and the breakdown,” Golla said, also calling Central Washington a well-coached team.
The Wildcats finished the regular season as the No. 7 team in the nation, and faced No. 6 seed (and No. 18 overall) Cal Poly in the playoff’s quarterfinals. They dominated the Mustangs 62-17, earning a place in the semifinals and proving that they are a threat in the West Region.
“We can’t look past Central Washington,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “They require 100% of our focus.”
This will not be the first time the Bears have faced the Wildcats this season. Cal triumphed 48-19 when it hosted them March 11, although Central Washington put up a fight in the second half. Senior wing Nick Bloom and junior fullback Max Schumacher each scored two tries in the match, while Golla and senior flanker Jake Broekhuizen wreaked havoc on the Wildcats’ lineout.
“Central is a physical team,” Clark said. “Our approach needs to match their physicality.”
He said that they are good at limiting scoring opportunities, increasing the importance of the Bears capitalizing when they have the chance.
Both teams feature stars to watch in this matchup. For the Bears, Golla has been a big part of the team’s success this season. The 6’4” forward is all over the field for the blue and gold, with powerful carries, reliable tackling, and set-piece dominance in the lineout and scrum. As the captain, his leadership has also been valuable.
When asked to describe his leadership style, Golla’s answer was telling: He deflected the credit to his teammates.
“It helps that I’ve got a bunch of other guys on the team who also lead by example,” Golla said.
He explained that his approach involves a mixture of vocal leadership and setting a positive example for his teammates.
“Sam is an all-around very skilled and tough player,” Clark said. “Additionally, he is among the fittest players on the team, which allows him a great capacity for work.”
Golla’s coach is not the only one who has noticed his achievements this year; he is one of 16 nominees for the Rudy Scholz award, given to the best players in men’s college rugby. This marks the sixth time a Cal player has been nominated for the award since 2017.
The Wildcats boast a Rudy Scholz award hopeful of their own. Center and grad student Jack Wendling, a Washington local, is also listed among the 16 nominees. He starred not only for his college, but also for the USA National Team’s U23 squads in both 7’s and 15’s. He was named to the USA National 7’s senior team for a brief stint as well.
Wending is a strong carrier and tackler in the midfield, and will be crucial to the Wildcats’ hopes this weekend.
The Bears will be in action at noon Saturday at Witter Rugby Field. The winner of the match will take on either St. Mary’s or BYU the following weekend in the West Region Finals.