The final step to the title proved to be too much for the Bears.
On Saturday, after 80 minutes of intense fighting in Houston, Cal rugby dropped the national championship to Navy, 28-22. Cal can regret some last-minute spoiled opportunities in the scoring range to top its opponents. Yet, the No. 1 undefeated Midshipmen were too strong for the Bears, clinching their first rugby varsity title.
Despite the loss, the start of the game had all the makings for another Cal rugby championship. The blue and gold were determined to work early in this national championship. As soon as the referee blew the whistle for the kickoff, Cal monopolized time of possession and played in Navy territory for most of the first half.
The early stages of the game continued to go Cal’s way. In the ninth minute, after some clean work from the forwards, sophomore Kealan O’Connell dashed on the side, beat Navy’s last defender, and dove under the stick to dot Cal’s first try, which was converted by Max Schumacher.
Up 7-0, there was no doubt that Cal wanted more. Quickly, players came back to offensive duties and entered the 22-yard zone. Forwards pick-and-go’s paid off when tighthead prop Emilio Shea crashed in the in-goal area to make it a 12-0 game.
Cal head coach Jack Clark’s players would simply not be denied. Navy gave up a penalty, allowing Cal to extend its lead off of a penalty kick. Schumacher slotted the attempt between the posts, putting Cal up by 15 unanswered points.
The top team in the nation eventually woke up at the 29th minute. On one of its most promising drives of the first half, instead of taking the three-pointer, Navy opted for the touch kick. A perfectly executed lineout rapidly shifted to a maul. Cal’s forwards could not prevent the adverse prop from sending the ball past the try line — Navy opened its point tally and came back into the game.
A minute before halftime, Navy struck back in Bear territory. Quick ball play from Navy disorganized Cal’s defense, and the scrum half dummy passed lock Pat Deely to make a run in the in-goal for another try.
The referee announced the intermission with a 15-14 score in favor of the Bears. The first half saw some promising offensive patterns and defensive tightness from Cal, albeit only leading Navy narrowly at the break.
The second half started with the same ferocity for both teams: Tackles and runs sounded more intense and violent as the game wore on. However, at the 52nd minute, Navy loosened its defense, and fullback Joe Kirsten superbly stepped his way through to reach the try zone. Schumacher converted and extended to an 8-point lead, 22-14.
However, the final 20 minutes were detrimental for the Bears, who gave up their lead only 13 minutes before the final whistle.
Like Navy’s first try, a maul following a touch kick rolled over Cal’s defense in the 62nd minute, as the Midshipmen’s hooker touched down after this collective effort. The successful sideline conversion narrowed the gap to a one-point game: 22-21.
Another try came in at minute 67 to erase Cal’s lead when Navy sent the ball to the right side with a numerical advantage. Navy’s flyhalf dodged tap tackles to dash his way through the Bears’ defense, scoring the fourth try for his team.
Despite three substitutions aiming to instill freshness in Bear’s lineup, Cal could never score another try. Attacking possibilities were denied by a stout defense, which collected precious penalties as the remaining minutes quickly faded.
The referee blew the final whistle on a 28-22 final score for the Midshipmen, capping off a perfect season with 18-straight wins. The Bears’ early 15-point lead was insufficient to have the final say in this match.
Although Cal’s 13-4 overall record ended in a heartbreaking defeat to Navy, this has been the most successful season for the Bears since 2019, when Cal was the runner-up to Life in the national championship.