PHILADELPHIA – The Golden Bears cemented their historic year with steely-eyed resolve Sunday in their three-match run through championship rounds of the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship at Talen Energy Field, following their Pool A dominance Saturday over Tennessee and Maryland
by beating Arkansas State, 24-14, in the quarterfinals, Arizona, 38-5, in the semifinals, and UCLA, 31-7, in the championship final to be named national 7s champions.
In taking its fourth straight CRC 7s national title, the program’s 31st overall combined with 15-a-side play, California becomes the first team to win national collegiate championships in 7s and 15s during the same year.
“I’m so very proud of these boys for representing our University with such determination,” said head coach Jack Clark, who has been at the helm for all four of the Bears’ 7s titles and 23 of the program’s 27 all-time 15s crowns. “They are exceptional young men.”
Graduating senior Jesse Milne, who scored two tries Sunday, was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament. “It’s emblematic of the effort that my teammates and coaches have put it throughout the year,” Milne said. “Everyone came in here committed to the best tournament they could possibly have.”
To reach the championship on Sunday, Cal had to get past Arkansas State in the quarters for the second time in two days and do so just 14 hours after beating the Red Wolves to end pool play on Saturday. The Blue and Gold fell behind 14-0 in the quarterfinal before the tides began to turn, starting with a long gain upfield by sophomore Jake Goena, who foundAnthony Salaber for the Bears’ first try of the quarterfinal. Milne broke through the defense for a try that became the equalizer going into the break when Russell Webb kicked his second conversion of the half.
In the second half of their quarterfinal, the Bears withstood the Red Wolves’ pressure and put in two more tries through the hands of Webb, once as the captain dove into the right corner for the go-ahead score and again as Webb carried the ball to the try line and freshman Fawzi Kawash used his legs as an impact replacement to capitalize as first man to the breakdown, collecting the ball and scoring the team’s fourth try of the contest to give Cal a 24-14 victory.
Just three hours later against Arizona in the semis, Cal came out and played like a team that had benefited from the challenge of facing Arkansas State twice, running up five of its six tries unanswered, including a hat trick from sophomore William Fuller, against the Wildcats. Matt Rogers averted a shutout for Arizona in the 13th minute but the Bears advanced easily to the all-Pac-12 championship.
Against the Bruins, Thomas Robles rumbled into the try zone early but unsuccessfully, getting held up in goal, before Goena scored the match’s first try in the second minute, converted by Webb for a 7-0 lead. Both teams had a share of set pieces that did not succeed against their familiar opponents, and the half ended with just a converted try separating the two teams.
In the second half, the Bears’ spacing and patience started paying as Milne found a midfield angle to penetrate for a score that aligned easily for Webb’s conversion. Patrick Barrientesfollowed suit one minute later and although Webb could not convert, the Bears had built a 19-0 lead.
Only two minutes remained in the match when Seb Sharpe finished a length-of-the-pitch sequence for UCLA’s first try to make it 19-7, but in terms of Rugby 7s, that could have been plenty of time to allow the match to pivot in UCLA’s favor when the Bruins kicked the restart. But the Bears responded. Anthony Salaber scored a try as one minute wound down, then he sprinted under Webb’s drop kickoff not just to control the restart, but catch the kick and sprint the distance for his second try of the match, and fourth of the day, to seal the Blue and Gold’s fourth straight 7s national championship
“We’ve played UCLA so many times and it’s been close most every time,” Salaber said. “It was an unfortunate result for them today, but they fought hard, we fought hard, and we just came out on the right side of it. We do have experience at this event and I think it showed in that game and all weekend.”
Salaber was a major impact player all weekend, as were several other Bears, not the least of whom was Webb. He successfully converted 18-of-28 kicks following Cal tries at the CRC and demonstrated great skill and leadership as Cal’s captain.
“I was very happy and proud of the boys having won the Varsity Cup for keeping their heads down and staying focused to reach the pinnacle here,” Webb said. “It’s not easy to do. It’s not just us, either, it was everyone back Berkeley who were able to hold on and do it with us. It’s was about playing better with each game, which we did, and when we hit the final, it really clicked.”
“It’s just amazing to be able to etch our names into the Cal history book, as long and storied as it is,” added Salaber. “It’s amazing to be a part of this team, which has really come together in 15s and 7s. It’s a special group of guys.”
As the return of Rugby 7s as a medal sport at the Summer Olympics in Rio approaches quickly on the horizon, the Golden Bears can savor the full measure they gave to make 2015-16 a year that will never be forgotten, and share their gratitude for the collective effort of everyone who continues contribute to its success in the past, present and future.
The Quarterfinal Scoring Timeline vs. Arkansas State
02:00 Arkansas State (Ricardo Lategan) 5, (Zinzan Elan-Puttick) 2
03:00 Arkansas State (Connor Cook) 5, (Zinzan Elan-Puttick) 2
05:00 Anthony Salaber 5, Russell Webb 2
07:00 Jesse Milne 5, Russell Webb 2
Halftime Score: California 14, Arkansas State 14
11:00 Russell Webb 5
13:00 Fawzi Kawash 5
Final Score: California 24, Arkansas State 14
The Team vs. Arkansas State
1. Robles, 2. Barrientes, 3. Salaber, 4. Webb, 5. Adolphus, 6. Milne, 7. Goena
Replacements: Boyer, Kawash
The Semifinal Scoring Timeline vs. Arizona
02:00 Russell Webb 5, 2
04:00 William Fuller 5, Russell Webb 2
05:00 William Fuller 5
07:00 Anthony Salaber 5, Russell Webb 2
Halftime Score: California 26, Arizona 0
10:00 Fawzi Kawash 5, Nicklas Boyer 2
13:00 Arizona (Matt Rogers)
14:00 William Fuller 5
Final Score: California 38, Arizona 5
The Team vs. Arizona
1. Robles, 2. Goena, 3. Salaber, 4. Webb, 5. Barrientes, 6. Milne, 7. Fuller
Replacements: Honens, Kondrat, Boyer, Howells, Kawash
The Championship Final Scoring Timeline vs. UCLA
02:00 Jake Goena 5, Russell Webb 2
Halftime Score: California 7, UCLA 0
09:00 Jesse Milne 5, Russell Webb 2
10:00 Patrick Barrientes 5
12:00 UCLA (Seb Sharpe) 5, (Cian Barry) 2
13:00 Anthony Salaber 5
14:00 Anthony Salaber 5, Russell Webb 2
Final Score: California 31, UCLA 7
The Team vs. UCLA
1. Robles 2. Goena 3. Salaber 4. Webb 5. Barrientes 6. Milne 7. Fuller
Replacements: Honens, Boyer