Cal Rugby Ready For 2017

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January 11, 2017

Cal Rugby Ready For 2017

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Photo: ABFlyer – Thomas Robles in Varsity Cup Final: Cal v BYU

Cal Athletics Release: Anton Malko, January 11, 2017

BERKELEY – Set to commence their spring schedule, the Golden Bears are as eager as their fans to embark upon the next chapter of California rugby, the oldest intercollegiate letterman’s sport at the University, which ended its last 15-a-side campaign by beating Brigham Young to win the 2016 Penn Mutual Varsity Cup National Championship.

The recently completed autumn 7s slate and 15s training displayed a talented array of freshmen, sophomores, emerging upperclassmen and accomplished veterans who must now jell to optimize that promising blend of youth and experience.

For the Bears to achieve their goals this spring – from winning the PAC Rugby Conference and the “World Cup” series, to facing off against local and longer-distance challenges, and preparing for national postseasons in both 15s and 7s – Cal must reckon with the graduation of significant contributors, reassemble players into effective roles and foster a championship culture that builds the team toward peak performance.

“We return some excellent players and some that want to climb into that rank,” said head coach Jack Clark. “There are also some very promising underclassmen who we want to fast track. This said, losing four of our tight five to graduation will ask some serious questions of our team.”

The returning core of flyhalf Russell Webb and center Anthony Salaber, both All-Americans, and championship-starting center Patrick Barrientes may be the best backline trio in collegiate rugby. Missed, however, will be graduated upperclassmen like scrumhalf All-America Nicklas Boyer and wing Lucas Dunne, both starters in Cal’s 15s championship over BYU; center Eakalafi Okusi, who came on as a reserve in the championship; center Jesse Milne, a 7s All-American who ended his career as MVP at the Collegiate Rugby Championship; and fullback Harry Adolphus, a threat from tee and ball in hand before his injury in the national semifinals.

Other returning upperclassmen competing for minutes in the backline include senior Karl Thornton and junior Hugo d’Auriol at fullback; Jake Goena, who started in the Varsity Cup final, fellow junior William Fuller, who was selected to the championship CRC 7s squad, Miles Honens, who brings championship-game experience from the 2014 Varsity Cup final and the CRC, and fellow senior Evan Coleman on the wings; junior Aidan Flynn and seniors Matt Ternan and Billy Maggs at the centers; and senior Jamie Howells and junior Matthew Coyle at flyhalf. Junior Chase Halverstadt is also in the mix as a center.

Junior Michael Goodwin is the elder statesman at scrumhalf, but the No. 9 jersey will be interesting to follow considering the presence of freshmen Keanu Andrade and Ken Kurihara, who earned 7s selections in the fall, as well as sophomore Fawzi Kawash, who played in the 2016 CRC and was a travel reserve for the Varsity Cup title game.

Many other frosh-sophs could feature along the backline for the Bears. Second-year fullback Troy Lockyear, a projected starter after arriving on campus, is back in the mix after an injury derailed his freshman year in 2016. First-year winger Sam Cusano is no secret after finishing tries for the Bears in autumn 7s tournaments, as did fellow freshmen Christian Dyer, a center, and flyhalf Elliot Webb. Sophomore Zachary Tavenner, who started against BYU in the national championship, is likely out until at least the postseason with an injury. Other options for the backline include sophomore Agustin Centurion and freshmen Taylor Damron, Charley Lagomarsino and Blake Peterson.

The Cal forwards appear to have an even bigger void to fill in terms of leadership and experience following the graduation of its entire starting front row: All-Americans Scott Walsh and George Vrame at the props, and Michael Bush at hooker. Championship-starting lock James Kondrat, another All-America selection after making big impacts in both postseasons, also graduated, as has flanker Nick Salaber, who started against BYU in the 15s title match.

To renew its front row, the Bears will look for the cream to rise to the top. Senior prop Kevin Sullivan is the most experienced in a group that also includes fellow seniors Henry Baylor at prop, and Wade Ogburn or Brian Joyce at hooker. Other options among upperclassmen include senior Henry Harmon. There could also be a youth movement, led by sophomore props Tyler Douglas and Peter Sekona, and hooker Jack Iscaro; or an even younger push from freshmen like props Damon Wiley and Owen Duvall and hooker Sid Holland.

Connor Sweet, a Varsity Cup championship starter, could be joined by fellow senior Tomas Zerbino atop the depth chart’s lock positions, although Zerbino may also become an option at prop. Those second-row options are followed in some order by Olivier Damas and Anthony Kosinski, with Damas also a contender to play flanker; sophomores Chase Bixby and Robert Paylor; and freshman Sebastian Bader. Other options include freshman Josh Warnock, who is returning from injury.

Talented and familiar names are found in the Bears’ back row, where All-America honorable mention Thomas Robles, a senior, has been solid at No. 8, and sophomore Nic Mirhashem returns at flanker after an immensely valuable freshman year. Drew Gaffney will compete for backrow minutes with Damas and an array of promising underclassmen, which includes sophomores Nathan Becker and Ben Casey, and freshmen George Salter, Thomas Spradling and Patrick Hesse. Other options include the brothers Felix and Louis Le Merle, a junior and senior, respectively; senior John Warnock; sophomore Cormac Heaney and freshman McClain Marks.

After the team commences its schedule January 14-15 at the Dennis Storer Classic, where it will take on UC San Diego, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz on Saturday followed by the event’s showcase vs. UCLA Sunday, seven of the Bears’ next nine matches take place on Witter Rugby Field. The home opener of Saturday, Jan. 21, will be celebrated as Parents Weekend vs. Arizona at 1 p.m. followed by a 2:45 p.m. match against UC Santa Cruz. Cal and the Wildcats will both be playing the first fixture in their respective PAC Rugby Conference schedules, which continues for the Bears in Strawberry Canyon the following Saturday, Jan. 28, as Utah visits at 1 p.m., followed by a match against the Pleasanton Jesters at 2:45.

Two road matches send the Bears to Cal Maritime at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1, and to Santa Clara at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4, before Cal returns home Saturday, Feb. 11, to host Arizona State at 12 p.m. in PAC Rugby play followed by a match against Cal Poly at 2 p.m.

The following weekend, Pac-12 Network will broadcast live as the British Columbia Thunderbirds visit Witter Rugby Field for the “World Cup” series, kicking off at 2 p.m. The series, which dates back to 1921, will be awarded to the team with an aggregate points advantage following the rematch Sunday, March 5, in Vancouver, Canada (kickoff time TBD).

Following a doubleheader Saturday, March 11, in Los Angeles, where Cal will play UCLA and USC starting at 1 p.m. on North Athletic Field, the Bears will welcome generations of alumni, families and friends in celebration of Homecoming and Reunion Weekend during the Cal-Saint Mary’s match, which kicks off at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 25, on Witter Rugby Field. The match vs. the Gaels, set for broadcast on Pac-12 Network, will be followed by a reserve-grade contest.

The Blue and Gold will take on this challenging schedule gratefully, aiming for a trajectory of improvement heading into the national postseason, where the quest in April and May for a 15-a-side national title will precede Cal’s return in June to the CRC, where another national championship opportunity awaits in the Olympic code of the game.

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North American Rugby News With A USA Slant