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Navy and Cal Set for a Thriller D1A Final

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Navy and Cal Set for a Thriller D1A Final

Photos David Hughes and David Barpal.

A hugely competitive D1A playoff culminates Saturday at Aveva Stadium in Houston with Navy and Cal facing off. 

The 17-0 Navy Midshipmen come in after just barely escaping Lindenwood 12-10 in the semifinal. Cal (13-3) meanwhile exploded for 55 points to beat BYU in their semi. Such a close game and yet it was twi the winning margin of Cal (13-3), which held off Saint Mary's 29-28. 

The game will be shown live on The Rugby Network 7:30PM ET Saturday.

“We are extremely excited to be in our first national championship in 29 years. We couldn’t think of a better way to conclude our first year as a varsity program,” said Navy Director of Rugby Gavin Hickie. “The most pleasing aspect of this season has been the growth of our Midshipmen. The majority of the team had never played rugby before, which is a testament to their dedication and commitment to Navy rugby. We know our opponent will pose a significant challenge, consisting of experienced rugby players with seasoned internationals across the board. We embrace this final opportunity for our seniors as they commission in just three weeks where their challenges will no longer be just a game.

“We are honored to have Capt. Pat O’Mahoney, USNA Class of ‘99 represent Navy for the coin toss. O’Mahoney was a rugby All-American and was inducted into the Navy Rugby Alumni Association Hall of Fame in 2022.”

Hickie has given much of the credit for the team's success to James Willocks, who joined the coaching staff this year and, like Hickie, is a former Head Coach at Dartmouth. For his part, Willocks said it's about the players. The grit and effort they have shown throughout the season is why they are where they are.

The Mids have won five games against opponents ranked in the top 10 of the Collegiate Rugby Association of America (CRAA) power rankings: Cal, Lindenwood, and Army (three times). And yes Navy beat Cal March 11 in Annapolis 33-28. This weekend's game is certainly expected to be close, as well.




turnovers and had a lineout steal against Army in the quarterfinals. Navy posted three lineout steals and forced one turnover during a scrum versus Lindenwood. The Mids haven’t committed a turnover during a scrum and have allowed just one lineout steal in the playoffs.

• The Mids have surrendered 10 points or fewer in 10 of their 17 contests this season. Navy is allowing just 10.9 points per game during the 2022-23 campaign.

• Navy’s 12 points against Lindenwood was its lowest point total in a match this season. Additionally, the Mids were held scoreless in a half for the first time this season.

Navy vs. Cal Notes

• The Mids are competing in their second national championship game in program history. Navy’s other appearance was a 27-13 loss to Cal in the 1994 title match.

• Navy won its first match this season against Cal, 33-28, in Annapolis on March 11.
• Although the Mids surrendered a season-high 28 points and 657 meters gained against the Golden

Bears, the defense was crucial in other areas. Navy forced a season-best 21 turnovers and post- ed four breakdown steals in the match. Additionally, the Golden Bears won just 67 percent of their scrums and only 57 percent of their lineouts.

• Navy also controlled the kicking battle, outkicking Cal, 472-210, despite having only two more kick attempts.

• Matthew Thibodaux erupted for a season-high three tries in the victory. The senior is one of six Mids to post a hat trick this season, but has been the only one to do so against a ranked opponent.

Scouting California

The Golden Bears entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak with losses to No. 1 Navy (33- 28), No. 6 St. Mary’s (38-34) and No. 7 BYU (50-14).

Cal was seeded third in the west bracket and opened the playoffs with an 82-15 victory over sixth-seeded Cal Poly.

Cal has since been on a revenge tour, defeating both second-seeded St. Mary’s (29-28) and fourth-seeded BYU (55-31) to advance to the title match. The second half was crucial in both victories for the Golden Bears as they outscored the Gaels (17-7) and Cougars (36-12).

Cal will be playing for its 27th 15s DI-A National Championship since the event was created in 1980. The Golden Bears last won the championship in 2011 with a 21-14 victory over BYU. Cal did win two Varsity Cup 15s National Championships (2016, ‘17) when the event ran from 2013 to 2017. The Golden Bears have lost their last two appearances in the DI-A title game to Life in 2018 (60-5) and 2019 (29-26).

For the first time since Feb. 11, both senior co-captains for Cal, Max Schumacher and Nathan Zylstra will feature in the starting lineup this weekend. Zylstra, who was ruled out due to injury for nearly two months, made his triumphant return to the game as a reserve-replacement hooker against BYU in the semifinals, scoring just a few minutes after taking the field, much to the delight of his teammates.

In Zylstra’s absence, Schumacher has led the Bears well this season and also picked up some personal accolades. He was named a Rudy Scholz Award finalist on April 19 and on Monday he was honored with the Jake Gimbel Award at Cal’s annual academic honors luncheon. The senior is also the Bears’ leading points-scorer this season with a whopping 130 points tallied between tries, conversions and penalty kicks.

Navy has their own Scholz Award finalist in Lewis Gray, who has scored 17 tries in 16 games and added another 81 points on kicks pace the Midshipmen.