Cal Rugby (Cal Athletics)
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PHILADELPHIA – California culminated its second straight undefeated run through the Collegiate Rugby Championship with a 24-21 victory over Kutztown University to become back-to-back 7s national champions Sunday at PPL Park.
The Golden Bears from Berkeley overcame a 7-0 deficit early in the first half with three unanswered tries, adding a fourth try during the responding run from the Golden Bears from Pennsylvania, and held on to preserve their victory as the final whistle signaled the program’s second consecutive national championship in the Olympic code of the game.
Cal exited the tournament with the most tries scored (31) and best points differential (+127) in the 20-team field, and sealed its title with the type of hard-nosed play that pundits expected from the opposition and a national TV audience witnessed from both teams.
Captain Seamus Kelly was lifted aloft on the shoulders of his teammates after leading his team to the title in his final match for the Rugby Bears, and the graduated senior left the pitch for the final time having contributed a team-high six tries to the team’s three-day, six-match effort.
“It’s really special to win this championship alongside the guys and the coaches, and it’s definitely something I’ll take with me forever,” said Kelly.
Against a bruising Kutztown team that had made its own unbeaten run to the final and dispatched last year’s runner-up along the way, Cal combined a confident attack with stingy defense to accentuate its skills while meeting the strengths of the opposition head on.
Brad Harrington, the only other graduating senior on Cal’s CRC squad, typified the team’s grit by absorbing some serious contact throughout the tournament and bouncing back to make a difference in every match he played.
“It was about playing with these guys one last time and finishing on a high note,” Harrington said. “I have to thank the trainers and doctors for keeping me healthy so I could be in these last few games and play for a championship. It’s been incredible, the bond we’ve built.”
Cal started its championship Sunday with a 33-5 quarterfinal win over Penn State that saw the Bears fall behind early on a Ross Morris try before the Blue and Gold exploded for five unanswered tries.
The semifinals saw Pac-12 peers Cal and UCLA square off for seventh time in their 7s history and second straight time in the CRC semis. Sunday’s chapter in this great rivalry was a squeaker that the Bears could claim only after coming back to win 20-17 on a last-minute try by Andrew Battaglia, who ended the tournament with five tries scored and a full account of chase-downs and tackles.
Taking the field against Kutztown in the final, Cal made it plain its intent to meet Kutztown’s might with ample power of its own, poaching its opening kickoff and driving the Pa. Bears into touch when they wrenched back possession. But Kutztown stole the ensuing lineout to also make it clear that this would be a see-saw battle, jumping out to a 7-0 lead over Cal with a try by Bruce Dolan that was converted by scrumhalf Niku Kruger.
Cal answered back with a bulldozing try by Alec Gletzer two minutes later, but Russell Webb missed the conversion to leave Cal down by two. Undeterred, the Blue and Gold kept on the gas following a Kutztown knock-on and Webb converted the next try scored off a scrum through the hands and finished by Battaglia to put Cal in the lead at 12-7 entering the break.
In the second half, Kutztown laid down its challenge by stealing its kickoff out of the air before Gletzer poached the ball back. The two teams traded penalties before Harrington darted through a gap at minute 9 and Webb converted (2-for-4) for a 19-7 Cal lead.
With the clock ticking at minute 11, Kutztown prop Mike Lawrenson scored a try that was converted by Kruger (3-for-3). Back on the attack, Jake Anderson streaked down the right touchline and weighed his options before popping the ball high off his foot, forcing Kutztown to carry it into the try zone to prevent another try, but awarding a 5-meter scrum to Cal.
After a Kutztown penalty gave Cal a chance to tap and go, replacement winger Patrick Barrientes dove into the left corner in the 13th minute for what proved to be the championship-winning try, for although Webb could not convert and Vetekina Malafu added a final try for Kutztown, time had run out and the Blue and Gold could celebrate their second straight national 7s title.
“We played to our strengths pretty well and we neutralized a lot of theirs,” Kelly explained postgame. “I thought we were very good at the breakdown and were very physical in defense. We knew that was the hallmark of their game, and we came with a physicality and an intensity that matched them. When you neutralize their best threats and you accentuate your own abilities, you’re going to do well, and I think we did that.”
Kelly will depart immediately for Houston to join the U.S. National Team in its preparations for a match against Scotland on June 7, when head coach Jack Clark will also be inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame after winning his 24th overall national championship, the 28th in the history of the program.
(From Cal Athletics Press Release)