Somber Bear Ruggers Play for Another Title

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By David Bush, Staff Writer
Posted May 30, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017 BearInsider.com


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2017 National Rugby Champions
Photo: ABFlyer
Cal departs this week for Philadelphia and the Collegiate Rugby Championships, the national championships for the 7-a-side version of the sport.

The flight, however, will not be the giddy journey that would be the norm for a team favored to win the tournament for a fourth straight time. Everyone's mind is as much on what they are leaving behind as what lies ahead.

Teammate Robert Paylor remains paralyzed from the chest down in Santa Clara Valley Medical Center after being injured during the Bears victory in the Varsity Cup (15-a-side) Championship game on May 6.

"I think we've all got heavy hearts," head coach Jack Clark said this week. "This is new ground for us. We have never been in this position. We believe we have a responsibility to carry on. That's what we're trying to do. It's kind of like our bodies and minds are here but our hearts are somewhere else."

And they are likely to be there for a long time. The 20-year-old sophomore faces a long struggle. During a news conference last week Paylor's family and the doctors treating him for the first time since his injury provided details about what happened and what lies ahead.

As horrific as the situation was and is, it could have been worse. Paylor was lucky that the game was on the campus of Santa Clara University, close to the SC Valley Medical Center, which has a unit dedicated to spinal injuries. Getting the proper treatment immediately is crucial in such situations.

Paylor was caught awkwardly under some players in what is known as a "maul". Two vertebrae near the base of his neck were crushed and in between the vertebrae pushed against the spinal cord. Signals the brain sends to muscles via the spinal cord are blocked, causing paralysis. That the bad news.

Doctors loosely define spinal cord injuries as "incomplete" and "complete." Paylor's is incomplete because he has sensation in his spinal cord that can still send signals to the brain. Chances for recovery from "incomplete" injuries are better than from "complete."

"We would like to have those signals to also be able to go down from his brain to all of his muscles," Dr. Stephen McKenna chief of the Rehabilitation Trauma Center at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center said. "He's not at that point right now. People who have sensation that go all the way to the bottom of their spinal cord have a better chance of having recovery of those types of strength in their hands and eventually in their feet."

He has already undergone decompression surgery in which doctors took out the moved disc and replaced it with a bone matrix that allows bone in that area to heal.

"Each person who has that injury has their own journey to recovery and that journey is going to be a long one," McKenna said. "I know that the effort that he's going to bring to that process of recovery is going to be extraordinary."

Paylor has some strength in his biceps, can move his wrists slightly and feel down to his toes. "With the type of injury that he has we would expect him to have some degree of recovery naturally over the next year that could include some recovery of his hand function," McKenna said.

He can communicate with his doctors and his family and knows what lies ahead.

"I'm just hoping for baby steps, small incremental steps," his father, Jeff Paylor said at the news conference. "The littlest thing is the biggest thing."

The team, which has stayed in constant touch with Paylor over the last month, will be trying to honor him by winning another championship.

Rugby 7s is a quicker version of its 15s counterpart. The field is the same size with fewer than half as many players on it. That makes for some wide-open spaces and broken field runs. The games are considerably shorter, two seven-minute halves as opposed to two 40-minute periods.

The CRC is a two-day event featuring 24 teams divided into six four-team pools. Everybody plays a three-game round robin within its pool the first day. The six pool winners advance along with the top two second-place finishers, as determined by point differential.

Cal is in a pool with Penn State, Clemson and Delaware. Coincidentally, during their march through the Varsity Cup the Bears beat both Penn State and Clemson.

"They're athletic," Clark said. "I think Clemson has some strong ball runners on their team. So they might ask some questions of us.

"I am very impressed with Penn State's backs, and I think we will see some of those backs."

In sevens play Cal is 2-0 against Penn State and has never played Delaware or Clemson. Of course, in a 24-team field, "scouting" is at a minimum anyway.

"We don't worry about the other team, we just try to play our game," said senior Patrick Barrientes, who has been a productive sevens player with 52 tries in sevens play, sixth best in Cal history.

"I love sevens," he said. "It is the same concept. You've got to make tackles and be strong with the ball. but running you have a little more time, you can show a little more fakes and it is a little more exciting game. A little more expansive.

"It can change so quickly. You can be on your own goal line and then can score really quickly."

The Bears preparations last week were disrupted slightly by some players being unavailable for various reasons. Fortunately, Clark had an ample number of bodies.

"We have had a bit of illness run through the team, some guys were getting the flu," Clark said. "We were missing important players from time to time. There was graduation ceremony and all that. I would say, it has been a bit disjointed.

"But I am pleased with the effort the guys are putting in. A lot of them stayed behind to help this team, especially our young guys who don't have much of chance to make the trip. It's their summer break and here they are still helping the team. I am very appreciative of the guys who have stayed around to help get the team get ready; we are going to finish this thing off, go back to Philadelphia then put an end to the season."

Clark figures to travel 13 players. With so much activity, as many as six games in two days, he must be careful to conserve his men's stamina. On the other hand, there is incentive go with the best for long periods.

"If you were to drop a game in your pool and finish second, then it becomes a issue of point differential. So your best insurance policy to win games and win by a wide margin," he said. "So you either gamble and try to win the pool and keep minutes off all your players, which is one strategy and substitute liberally. Or you try to win games by a wide margin and go for a big differential and make sure if you drop a game you have a crack at the second round."

And in this type of tournament, just because a game ends, the competition doesn't. Clark also preaches, "winning the interval".

"These are long taxing days," he said. "If you make a mistake you don't bring your best game early, it's hard to catch up in sevens. The game is so short. It is important to win that interval. To get fuel at the right time. Get off your feet. It's hot back there, stay as cool as you can. And just try to explode over three games."

Barrientes said that is also something that takes practice. "It's really something you have to learn. At Cal we have the high performance center. We focus on nutrition, hydration and rest and recovery," he said. "Turn the switch on for 14 minutes then put your feet up and really relax and get ready for the next game."

Fund for Paylor:

Estimated expenses for Paylor's recovery run in the neighborhood of $1 million. An account has been set up on the GoFundMe web site and more than $600,000 has been raised to date.

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