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CAL HOSTS SEMI VS. PENN STATE SATURDAY

April 18, 2017

CAL HOSTS SEMI VS. PENN STATE SATURDAY

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Photo: ABFlyer Photo

Bears Take On Nittany Lions 1 P.M.
4/18/2017 2:8 PM | By: Cal Athletics

BERKELEY – California hosts Penn State, the top-ranked team from the East, Saturday, April 22, at 1 p.m. on Witter Rugby Field in the national semifinals of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Rugby Championship.

Scheduled to kick off following the Spring Football game, the Bears (15-3) and Nittany Lions (20-1) renew their national postseason history for a slot in the Varsity Cup national championship final as graduating seniors run onto the pitch for the final time at home.

Cal and Penn State have met four times in national championship finals – 1995, ’96, ’99 and ’01 – and Saturday marks the Nittany Lions’ 10th trip to the national postseason’s final four.

Admission to the Varsity Cup semifinal is free for all Cal students, active military personnel and children under 10 when the gates open at noon in in Strawberry Canyon. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and youth 10-19, and $3 for groups of 10 or more, with advance online purchases available at calbea.rs/RugbySpring2017.

For shuttle, parking and other information related to Cal Day on April 22, visit calday.berkeley.edu/plan.php.

The Bears last faced the Nittany Lions in 2014, a 33-5 victory in which Russell Webb started and Anthony Salaber and Patrick Barrientes came on as replacements, although that contest was at the Collegiate Rugby Championship 7s in Philadelphia. The last meeting between Penn State and Cal in 15-a-side play took place March 3, 2013, in Berkeley, where the Bears defeated PSU with 15 tries scored. In the postseason, these two sides last met April 18, 2010, in Marietta, Ga., where the Bears took down Penn State, 61-19, in the national quarterfinals.

Cal comes in the Varsity Cup semifinals having defeated Clemson, 71-7, April 15 in South Carolina, while Penn State earned its semifinal slot by taking down Army, 47-34, in their quarterfinal played at University Park, Pa.

The Nittany Lions come into the Varsity Cup semifinals averaging 59.8 points per game on offense while giving up 17.0 ppg defensively. They feature five first-team all-conference selections, including superlative senior flanker Malcolm May and Rugby East Forward of the Year Rob Irimescu, a junior at No. 8, in the forwards; and a trio of first-team backline selections in junior scrumhalf Jimmy Ronan, flyhalf Michael Dabulas and senior center Selby Niumataiwalu.

After blowing out Harvard in Round 1, Penn State jumped out to a 34-17 halftime lead against Army in the quarterfinals and held off the Black Knights to advance. Junior lock Ryan McNulty scored three tries and senior outside center Joe Kelly dotted down twice for PSU.

Its quarterfinal win was PSU’s second of the year over Army, adding to signature victories this year that have included two wins over Navy, beating the Middies twice, 60-36 and 39-29; and a road win at Kutztown, 41-34. Penn State also recorded an impressive, 50-41 win over the senior men’s club Old Blue of New York and brought home three wins from its Scotland tour, beating West of Scotland, 73-5, in Glasgow; Strathclyde University, 32-7, in Perthshire; and St. Andrews University, 46-31, in Fife.

By comparison, Cal takes a scoring average of 56.6 ppg offensively and 8.4 ppg on defense into Saturday’s semifinal. Although the Bears share no common opponents with the Nittany Lions this year, Cal also faced Army in last year’s quarterfinals, which ended 41-29 in favor of the Blue and Gold.

The Rugby Bears are expected to send a familiar blend of youth and experience into Saturday’s showdown, doing so, as they have, out of necessity as much as choice. Barrientes is hopeful for a return from injury, which could readjust the backline that traveled to Clemson with the move of Jake Goena to a wing, leaving fullback open for a choice like Aidan Flynn or Karl Thornton.

While Cal would draw confidence from the reunification of Barrientes to its core nucleus in the midfield with Webb at flyhalf and Salaber at outside center, it must also rely on its less-experienced units to step up to the challenges that come with a national semifinal.

Freshman prop Damon Wiley figures to be fully recovered after missing his projected start with gameday illness at Clemson. He and senior Kevin Sullivan are likely to bind onto hooker Wade Ogburn up front. Sophomore Robert Paylor could rejoin senior Connor Sweet as the lock positions, and the back row is likely to remain manned by freshman Thomas Spradling, sophomore Nic Mirhashem and senior Drew Gaffney.

Freshman Keanu Andrade could be tapped again to start at scrumhalf, with fellow frosh Sam Cusano may get the call at the other wing position.

For these Bears, Saturday’s semifinal can cement their final home memories of the season on Witter Rugby Field, some for their last time as a collegian, as they seal a spot in the national championship. The championship final of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup takes place Saturday, May 6, at Stevens Stadium on the campus of Santa Clara University.

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