Photos Karen Drinkwater (homepage) Mike Geib (right)
MORAGA, Calif. – To call Saint Mary’s 55-31 victory against Cal the team’s statement win of the season would be overshadowing a number of the Gaels’ impressive 80-minute efforts they have put together in the past three months. Still, the 24-point win over its Bay Area rival might be the loudest statement Saint Mary’s has made this season.
A large and electric crowd surrounded Pat Vincent Memorial Field, and those who were there to support the home team had plenty to cheer about early on as Saint Mary’s raced out to a 28-3 lead.
Seamus Kelly, fresh off from earning a cap in the Men’s Eagles’ IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifying win over Uruguay, scored Cal’s first try with only a few minutes left to play in the opening half.
Any momentum that the Bears generated from Kelly’s try quickly reverted back to the Gaels when Kevin O'Connor ran in a try to close the opening half.
The 33-10 lead Saint Mary’s held at the break did not convince the Gaels to take their foot off of the gas pedal. Last season, Saint Mary’s built a 15-point halftime lead against Cal only to lose 42-31.
“We’ve had nightmares of last year’s game,” said Saint Mary’s fly Garrett Brewer. “We talked at halftime to remind ourselves not to slow down, don’t let up, the score is still zero to zero. Everything about last year’s match is still fresh in our minds. So, we tried to fix our game plan and keep going forward.”
The mental reinforcement worked, as Saint Mary’s outscored Cal 22-7 during the first 30 minutes of the second half. Gaels winger Nick Schlohbohm scored two of his three tries during that span.
The brilliant performance by Saint Mary’s was especially impressive considering the last match to cause the Gaels to do so much as break a sweat was March 8 against BYU.
Since the Gaels’ 35-21 loss in Provo, Utah, D1A Rugby’s No. 1-ranked team swept through three inferior conference opponents while compiling a plus-324 point differential in the process. Saint Mary’s Head Coach Tim O’Brien elected to start the majority of his first 15 in matches that could have easily been used as developmental contests and an opportunity to rest key starters.
O’Brien’s game planning over the past few weeks proved valuable after Saint Mary’s easily dispatched a powerful Cal squad.
“We wanted to stick with our continuity,” explained Brewer. “I think these games leading up to Cal really helped the continuity of the team. Playing our top 15 for 60 to 80 minutes of these games has really helped bring us closer as a team, and we’re well connected, and have a good idea of what everyone is thinking on the field.”
The level of talent on this year’s Saint Mary’s team is equivalent to last year’s unit. This year’s team, however, plays a faster, more wide-open brand than 2013’s version.
Brewer, an AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American in 2013, has noticed another key difference from last year’s team to the present.
“We’re a lot closer this year”, said Brewer. “Especially after losing the National Championship last year. That was a bitter apple for us, and everyone has been working really hard with the practices, the weight sessions, and early morning runs, just trying to get back to that National Championship and get a win.”
With wins over both Cal and BYU under its belt, there is no doubt Saint Mary’s is battle-tested and ready to make another run at the National Championship.