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Saint Mary's Impressive in Defeat of Cal in D1A QF

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Saint Mary's Impressive in Defeat of Cal in D1A QF

Saint Mary's now looks ahead to BYU. David Barpal photo.

Just two weeks after pulling off a late comeback win over Cal, Saint Mary's won in impressive fashion over their Northern California rivals to take their D1A quarterfinal Saturday in Moraga.

Saint Mary's never trailed in this game, which is a rarity against Cal. After about 10 minutes of the two teams testing each other like boxers in the ring, an impressive team movement involving several Gaels got Saint Mary's deep into the Cal half. And while Cal handled the Junoir Waqvesi chip kick, a knock-on gave Saint Mary's a scrum about six meters from the Cal line and on the right side. No. 8 King Matu picked up, was hit, but had the power to get it into the corner for the opening try.

Cal answered with a penalty goal moments later, and Saint Mary's answered with one of their own. Midway through the first half it was 8-3 Saint Mary's, and clearly seemed close. But the rest of the half was almost exclusively played in the Cal half of the field, and usually with Saint Mary's hands on the ball. Cal defended with tenacity, but it was only a matter of time. Cal had a lineout and maul trying to get out of their half, but after a couple of phases Saint Mary's was able to turn the ball over. Waqavesi spotted some space behind the Cal line and popped a kick that Dominic Besag chased down regathered, and scored. Mario Storti converted and it was 15-3.

Cal's Kealan O'Connell slotted his second penalty, but just before halftime, Saint Mary's put a stamp on the momentum. Once again Saint Mary's camped out in the Cal 22 and once again Cal kept defending—scrumhalf Solomon Williams, flanker Jon Puckett, and O'Connell at fullback all making some big tackles. Starting with a scrum just as time in the half was expiring, Saint Mary's went through 19 phases trying to break that line. Finally, a quick catch-pass from Waqavesi got the ball wide smartly where wing  Iosefa Toiaivao was ready and waiting. Actually it was Waqavesi-to-Besag-to-Matu-to Tioaivao, and the wing then cut back and crashed through to score.

That was the punch to the kidneys Cal didn't need.

Three minutes into the second half, Saint Mary's piled more on. After some patient momentum-building, a flat pass from Erich Storti to an onrushing Kaiponi Kayoshi put the loose forward through and with the try and Mario Storti's conversion it was now 27-6.

Certainly Cal has had the capability to come back from such a deficit, but they showed few signs of doing so. One such moment Will Shankland's scamper got Cal into the Saint Mary's half and Max Threlkeld's cutback got him close to the tryline. But Saint Mary's got him down and were over the ball to force a penalty. That missed chance hurt Cal.

While Saint Mary's didn't exactly turn the tables after that, and in fact Cal got another shot as big wing Joe Kirsten cut up the middle. His offload, however, rolled free. Saint Mary's went into their transition attack with Besag feeding Sosaia Pongi, who took off down the field before passing back inside to loose forward Sione Ofa. Ofe immediately passed back to Besag. The center decided to boot the ball ahead and while it was touched down by Cal, it was a goalline dropout and Saint Mary's was back on the front foot.

Once again the Cal defense held and when a loose ball was booted down the field Saint Mary's looked in trouble. Threlkeld tested the Saint Mary's defense but eventually the Gaels nabbed a loose pass. Here's where things got weird. Erich Storti attempted a clearance kick, and that kick was almost blocked. The ball shot up in the air, making about four meters. As various players looked to get it back, Mario Storti came flying in to grab the ball in the air. It was an audacious play but a big one, because when he landed, Storti had most of the Cal team behind him. Off he ran, beating one man and drawing another before passing to Waqavesi, who had reacted well to arrive in support. The flyhalf sidestepped a couple of players, made it to midfield, and then fired a pass to Erich Storti, who ran to the Cal 22 before popping a switch pass to Pongi. The wing had three Cal players at his heels, but being at his heels wasn't close enough, and Pongi raced in under the posts for a wild one.

It was a brilliant piece of Saint Mary's magic, and with 15 minutes to go it was 34-6. Could Cal come back? Yes, they've done it before, but they hadn't scored a single try yet and when the restart didn't even go 10 meters, Cal had to realize that four tries in less than 15 minutes was a very big ask. Cal did put pressure on and finally Reed Santos was over. He tried to drop-kick the conversion to save time, and missed, And Caleb Tomasin was able to get over, but it took Cal seven precious minutes to get him over. That made it 34-16, and that's how it ended.

For Cal, it was a sobering game. They were stymied fairly consistently through the first 70 minutes, during which they were held scoreless. Saint Mary's controlled possession quite well, although their scored often ended up being from broken play. Broken play or not, they played faster than Cal, made fewer errors than Cal, and defended doggedly. After all the talk about how demanding the Saint Mary's schedule has (or has not) been, the Gaels have beaten BYU as well as Cal twice.

And guess what? They play BYU in the D1A semis next week.