The Cal rugby team won its third straight national championship in 7s at the Collegiate Rugby Championships Sunday, but it did not come easy.
Senior co-captain Jake Anderson broke away and sprinted 55 meters for a try 1:40 into overtime to give the Bears a 17-12 victory over Kutztown in the championship game. It was the second straight year Cal defeated Kutzown, a public college in rural Pennsylvania in the championship game. Also known as the Golden Bears, Kutztown, had the backing of most of the crowd of 11,023 in Philadelphia’s PPL Park. Last year the team from Berkeley prevailed 24-21. This time the margin was greater but the match was actually closer.
Kutztown, with an enrollment of 10,000 has little national reputation, but does have an athletic tradition that includes San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelson. And it does to turn out quality rugby teams. Dominating the early going Kutztown had taken a 7-0 lead when they took advantage of a penalty in Cal territory. On the resulting tap and go, Kutztown’s Robert Stortz scored a try on a short run. It was converted by Niku Kruger putting Kutlztown up in the fourth minute.
Cal came right back. Anthony Salabar showing moves that rival those that Jackie Jensen or DeShaun Jackson might have used on the football field, ran 65 meters for a try. His darting moves left a couple of would be tacklers grasping at air. He had crossed the try line in the middle of the field, making Anderson’s conversion an easy one, tying the score at 7-7.
The Bears seemed to grab the lead right before the half when Andrew Battaglia dived into the left corner of the try zone. The score was waved off when it was ruled Battaglia had hit the corner flag before touching the ball down. Television replays indicated he had scored, but replay review challenges do not exist in rugby, so the score was still 7-7 at the half.
Midway through the second half Battaglia made sure he would score when he went in cleanly on the right corner of the end zone. However, the angle for conversion was too difficult for Anderson to convert and the Bears led 12-7.
Anderson, made perhaps his only mistake of the weekend moments later when he lost the ball on contact and Kutztown’s Alex Faison-Donahoe capitalized with a counterattacking try. However, the angle from which he scored also led to an unmakeable conversion attempt, keeping the contest deadlocked at 12-12.
As regulation wound down and overtime looked inevitable the Cal Bears caught a big break. Kutztown replacement Bilal Hassen had Cal’s Paul Bosco wrapped up in a tackle and instead of releasing him as instructed by the official, he picked the Cal player up and dumped him. That led to a yellow card as time was expiring, and forced Kutztown to play the first two minutes of sudden-death overtime a man short.
Cal did not need that much time. After holding off a mild Kutztown challenge Cal struck. The Bears spread the defense with options on either side, leaving a huge opening for Anderson, who simply broke free and out ran the defense.
“It’s a big moment for us to get the victory and any one of the seven of us on the field could have had a moment like that,” said Anderson, who was named Tournament MVP. “Credit to the team, because it was a team effort all the way. We’ve won here before and we had experience on the field today. We had to work through all the difficult moments and that’s exactly what we did.”
After sweeping its pool play on Saturday, Cal easily won its quarterfinal and semifinal Sunday. They knocked off Michigan 31-0 and Life University, the team the Bears beat for the title in 2013, 33-5. Then came the victory over Kutztown and the trophy, which was presented by 1958 Heisman Trophy winner, Rhodes Scholar, rugby star and brigadier general Pete Dawkins.
“It feels really good,” said Bosco, Cal’s third graduating senior along with Anderson and Alec Gletzer. “Today, the difference was Jake. When I reached my family in the stands, the first thing I said to them, and I want to say to everyone, is thank you.”
This marks the 29th overall national championship for the Cal rugby program, and the 25th for coach Jack Clark. It’s like comparing things you love,” Clark said when asked if Sunday’s win was any better than the others. “I love all these guys, the guys that went before them and the guys that went before them. We work awfully hard at this and these rewards justify all that we ask of these boys, which they give so willingly for their school.”