By James Nelson
MORAGA, Calif. -- In what was undoubtedly its best performance of the season so far, the Saint Mary’s College rugby team dominated from start to finish in a 55-31 win over No. 1-ranked Cal at Pat Vincent Field.
After a tense opening few minutes, the No. 4-ranked Gaels opened the scoring thanks to a great play by fullback Cooper Maloney. Cal made it clear from the start of the match that it would attempt to kick the ball downfield as much as possible, daring the Gaels to beat the Bears with a coordinated return.
The strategy backfired right away as Maloney took a kick around midfield and made several great moves to make it all the way to the 22-meter line before offloading to Luke Sauser, who shipped it wide to freshman Patrick McCarthy for the try. After the Dylan Audsley conversion, Saint Mary's owned the 7-0 lead.
After a Cal penalty kick cut the lead to 7-3 just a few minutes later, the Gaels re-gained the momentum with a great play on the ensuing kickoff. After Cal misjudged the kick, Nick Schlobohm raced downfield and fell on the ball, giving Saint Mary's possession inside the Cal 22. The Gaels wasted little time once they had it, as Sauser once again made a nice pass out wide, this time to Garrett Brewer, who blew past the defense for yet another try.
Despite jumping out to the early lead, Saint Mary’s players and its fans were still on edge due to the memory of last year’s narrow loss in Berkeley. Unlike that game however, there would be no letdown from the Gaels as the game progressed. Every time Cal started to put together a solid drive, the Gaels' defense held strong and time and again denied the Bears entry into the try zone.
Nowhere was this more evident than during the closing moments of the first half. Two more tries by the Gaels gave them a 28-3 lead and control of the game before Cal finally answered. The Bears scored a try with six minutes to go in the half to cut the score to 28-10.
With Cal’s momentum clearly starting to build and the crowd starting to get back in it, Saint Mary’s needed a big play and got one thanks to the veteran, Mike O’Neil. The senior fell on the ball off the kickoff and was able to hold on to it before getting a pass out to a charging Sauser who scored untouched. With the conversion the score stood at 33-10 in favor of the Gaels.
Cal eventually closed the gap to 33-17 with 28 minutes left to play but another great play by Saint Mary’s essentially shut the door on a comeback. The Bears looked again to drive when Mark Bowers came up with a huge play to get the ball back for the Gaels. The big man reached up and got a hand on a potential lineout pass, tipping the ball back to Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary's went on one last scoring run, with Schlobohm adding two more tries, Bowers adding a third, and Audsley adding a penalty kick. The scoring frenzy put Saint Mary's ahead 55-17 with less than 12 minutes to play and gave the Gaels plenty of cushion to finish out the huge win.
“This was a huge game for Cal rugby.” said Saint Mary’s coach Tim O’Brien, whose Gaels have also spent time at No. 1 in the RugbyMag.com national rankings this season. “Coming off their loss to University of British Colombia, we knew they really wanted this game so for us to play as well as we did was very impressive. Cal is a team that scores on you in a second, and I thought we did a great job of playing solid team defense and competing. Our guys hung in there and whenever Cal made a play, we were able to answer.”