Cal Starts Spring Rugby 15s at UCLA

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January 13, 2016

Cal Starts Spring Rugby 15s at UCLA

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Photo: ABFlyer Photo of George Vrame

Cal Athletics Press Release January 13, 2016

BERKELEY – Having turned to the 15-a-side game for its 134th year as the longest-tenured intercollegiate sport at the University of California, the Cal rugby program is in the homestretch of two weeks of double-day training sessions prior to the start of the spring semester and will soon break camp to begin its competition schedule Saturday and Sunday, January 16-17, in Los Angeles.

“Camp has gone well. We’ve battled some wet weather and a flu bug while getting through a lot of work,” said head coach Jack Clark. “We have installed the basics of our technical systems and put some solid work into building the team culture we want.”

The Dennis Storer Classic, named for UCLA’s former head coach and the first coach of the U.S. National Team, is a two-day, tournament-style event playing offering opportunities for the majority of the Golden Bear roster to don the Blue and Gold and open their campaign. Cal will take on UC San Diego at 9:30 a.m. Saturday on North Athletic Field followed matches against UC Santa Cruz at noon and UC Davis at 1:40 p.m. (all times PT).

After their three-game debut on Saturday, the Bears will face UCLA at 1 p.m. on Sunday, when the boys from Berkeley could aim for their 11th straight Storer Classic title dating back to the event’s origin in 2006. Last year, Cal went 4-0 and outscored the opposition, 172-10, to win the 2015 Classic.

“UCLA has really gone from strength to strength under Scott Stewart’s coaching,” Clark said. “They are a difficult team to break down and they play hard for one another.”

While winning its season-opening matches is one mission for the weekend, Cal is on a quest for much more in 2016. One of the many tests on offer for the Bears, following their Jan. 30 match at 1 p.m. at Cal Poly, is the first leg of the annual two-match “World Cup” series against the University of British Columbia, the home chapter kicking off at 11 a.m. on February 6.

“WORLD CUP” BEGINS FEBRUARY FRENZY

The UBC match at Witter Rugby Field is the first of three straight home matches that will be televised on Pac-12 Network this season. The second of those TV games features Cal vs. Air Force on Feb. 20 at noon (preceded by a curtain raiser vs. Cal Maritime at 10 a.m.), followed by the conference-play visit from UCLA to Strawberry Canyon on Feb. 27 at 3 p.m.

The match with the Bruins on Feb. 27 figures to be a pivotal point in the Bears’ pursuit for a fourth straight PAC Rugby Conference title, coming as the third conference contest on Cal’s slate following previous road tests Feb. 13 and Feb. 15 at Arizona and Arizona State, respectively.

The Bears visit Saint Mary’s on Saturday, Feb. 5, for an 11 a.m. kickoff in Saint Mary’s Stadium. Cal beat the Gaels, 27-20, on Witter Rugby Field in 2015 to make it four straight victories for the home team in the recent history between these local rivals. The Bears’ last triumph as the visitor at Saint Mary’s was a 60-34 decision in 2011.

After two home matches against Santa Clara on Wednesday night, March 9 (time TBA), and PAC opponent Oregon State on Saturday, March 12, at 1 p.m., the Blue and Gold will travel north of the border to take on the British Columbia Thunderbirds in the “World Cup” decider Sunday, March 20, at 1 p.m. in Thunderbird Stadium in Vancouver, Canada.

PURSUIT OF PAC RUGBY CROWN

Six days later and 1,000 miles away, Cal will be back on the road to play its final conference game of the regular season against Utah on Saturday, March 26 (time and location TBD). The Bears have been forced to beat the Utes each of the past three years to clinch the PAC Rugby Conference, and 2016 may require the same feat. In their last trip to Utah, the Blue and Gold clawed their way to a 43-31 victory over the Utes for Cal’s second PAC crown.

Remaining on the road and honoring a tradition that dates back to the late-19th century, Cal finishes its regular season at Stanford in the annual match for the Scrum Axe on Wednesday, March 30, at 6 p.m. at Steuber Rugby Stadium. Cal has not lost to the Cardinal since 1996 and could look to further its 20-year winning streak with extended opportunities down its roster before the start of the national postseason.

VARSITY CUP NATIONAL POSTSEASON

The 2016 Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Rugby Championships begin Saturday, April 9, when the 16-team field kicks off first-round action at select venues around the nation. The following two Saturdays hosted by the higher remaining seeds will feature the national quarterfinals April 16 and national semifinals April 23, setting up the Varsity Cup Rugby Championship final Saturday, May 7.

WHO WILL DON THE BLUE AND GOLD FOR THE BEARS?

If the Golden Bears intend to achieve all their goals for the spring 15s season and carry their momentum back into Olympic-style 7s for the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship in June, they will have to do so without six starters who featured for the Bears in 2015, five of whom graduated with All-America honors.

Gone from Cal’s starting lineup are former All-Americans Jake Anderson at fullback, Andrew Battaglia at wing, Paul Bosco at scrumhalf, Alec Gletzer at flanker and Sione Sina at lock, and gone, too, is versatile forward Carl Hendrickson.

“We are going to miss all of them, but Jake and Alec, our co-captains, will be the hardest to replace,” Clark said. “They were the best collegiate players at their positions in the country and the best leaders on our team.”

Despite those departures of talent and leadership, the Bears carry some significant experience and promising potential into their spring campaign, starting with the veteran front row of loosehead prop Scott Walsh, hooker Michael Bush and All-America George Vrameat tighthead prop. Front-row depth at prop also includes juniors Kevin Sullivan and Henry Baylor. The hooker position can also be filled by senior Blake Haynes or sophomore Brian Joyce.

The second row’s top options start with incumbent starter and All-American James Kondrat, a senior, followed by junior Tomas Zerbino. Junior Olivier Damas has had a strong training camp, while Anthony Kosinski offers another upperclassman option.

At the flanker positions, junior transfer Thomas Robles has converted an impressive fall 7s into a hardworking spring camp that may result in a starting nod. Senior Nick Salaber will make a starting bid while Felix Le Merle and John Warnock will also vie for varsity minutes. At No. 8, incumbent starter Connor Sweet will look to compete with Drew Gaffney for a starting role.

With Nicklas Boyer returning to campus injured after playing abroad for the fall term,Eakalafi Okusi will begin the season as the Bears’ starting scrumhalf, moving from center back to his high-school position at No. 9. The flyhalf position may seem safe with senior Russell Webb, but junior Jaime Howells and sophomore Matthew Coyle will be competing hard for their potential selections. At the centers, Cal will select from strength as All-America Anthony Salaber will likely pair with Patrick Barrientes or Jesse Milne, with juniors Billy Maggs and Matt Ternan, and sophomore Aidan Flynn also in the mix.

Only senior Miles Honens carries national postseason 15s experience into 2016 at the wing position, but the No. 11 and 14 jerseys have some additional intriguing options in senior Lucas Dunne, junior Evan Coleman and sophomores William Fuller, Jake Goena and Zachary Tavenner.

Back from his fall campaign with the gridiron football Bears and ready to stake a claim to the fullback position is Harry Adolphus, who will compete at that position group for the No. 15 jersey with senior Karl Thornton and sophomore Hugo d’Auriol.

A talented freshman class is poised to make a legitimate bid for playing time from the opening whistle throughout the spring schedule. “We will know more about our team by the end of January,” coach Clark said. “Some of the frosh-sophs might very well press for spots in the two-deep depth chart.”

Despite long-term injuries suffered by flanker Ben Casey and backs Troy Lockyear and Elliot Webb, the group has shown the potential for significant contributions to Cal’s campaign. “We are disappointed to have picked up some injures in camp,” said Clark. “Troy’s absence this season in particular is a real blow to the team. A case could be made that both he and Ben were starter candidates.” Nathan Becker, Chase Bixby, Agustin Centurion, Tyler Douglas,Cormac Heaney, Jack Iscaro, Fawzi Kawash, Nic Mirhashem, Robert Paylor, Peter Sekona and Jack Weigold are all expected to receive immediate opportunities to demonstrate what they have to offer beginning with the opening weekend in Los Angeles

While another exciting season is guaranteed for everyone who follows the Rugby Bears, anything that is accomplished will have to be well earned. Since 1882, this team hasn’t wanted it any other way.

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North American Rugby News With A USA Slant