Fans at Witter Rugby Field experienced a very special afternoon. Not only was this the last home game of the regular season, it was also a challenging one for Cal rugby. A large crowd – including the Cal band – packed Witter Rugby Field’s stands to see the Bears defeat the reigning D1A champions in Army.
Head coach Jack Clark and his players felt this playoff-like atmosphere: their concentration before kickoff showcased their eagerness to shut down their opponents as early as possible. Right after senior Max Schumacher kicked off, Cal took advantage of a West Point handling error and almost filled a try on the scoresheet.
Yet, this isolated event did not reflect the 15 opening minutes. Army took possession of the ball and progressively got closer to the scoring range. After well-executed patterns, Army fullback accelerated in Cal’s 22, dummied the last Cal defender and crashed in the in-goal area.
Down 7-0, Cal accumulated handling errors and nearly conceded a second try from a fumbled ball in its try zone. The Black Knights were patient enough to wait for Cal fouls and play in Bear Territory for a second try.
But the blue and gold soon entered points on the scoreboard — their team chemistry from lineouts and long-pass movements sent Max Threlkeld over to tie the game 7-7.
Clark’s men sustained their momentum and sieged Army’s territory. The well-oiled machine swept the field in width before finding British-born Oliver Newall in the corner. Schumacher missed the difficult conversion, but Cal held its lead, 12-7.
After a timid opening and being outpaced by Army’s strength, the forwards collected themselves and built on their devastating mauls. Right before halftime, flanker Cal Liebowitz scored from a maul. Schumacher slotted the conversion to make it 19-7 after 40 minutes.
New half, same start. Cal suffered from Army’s physical game and conceded a try to their number 7 only nine minutes after the intermission.
Despite the first substitutions made by Clark, the game became close enough to imagine Cal losing on its turf for the first time in XV since last April. A decisive turning point of the game occurred in the 56th minute when the Black Knight fullback dashed through Cal’s defense and forgot his open winger in an elementary 2 versus 1.
Clark realized the backline needed more physical density and subbed Rand Santos for Mack Fell. This coaching decision paid off immediately: after a clear break from Threlkeld, Fell navigated in Army’s 22 before offering Newall a second score in the corner. Schumacher added the extras off the tee and extended Cal’s lead to 26-14.
With the bonus point acquired, the Bears continued to put Army under pressure to commit fouls. Scrum-half Caleb Tomasin quickly played a penalty and zigzagged past Army’s defenders to seal the win for Cal.
Army did not abandon them until the end. Their number 15 – undeniably the best player on the field – had another clear break and dived into Cal’s in-goal area. Yet, after a desperate effort, Schumacher proved wrong to his counterpart and slipped his hand under the ball to prevent any contact with the in-goal area. After checking with his sideline colleague, the referee canceled the try after this impressive defensive move.
The game ended with a 31-14 final score. The joy perceived by Clark’s men after the final whistle blew demonstrated how intensely their efforts invested in the game eventually paid off.
Although sometimes at the edge of falling, Cal prevailed stronger than Army, both content-wise and in strategic choices. The Bears offer their fans a win for the home finale and remain undefeated in the Spring XV season.
Cal rugby takes the road next week to face Navy in Annapolis, Maryland, on Saturday, Mar. 11.