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Strong In-Game Finishes See Cal to D1A Final

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Strong In-Game Finishes See Cal to D1A Final

Cal fighting for the ball in the ruck. David Barpal photo.

Cal's journey to the D1A final has been an interesting one.

As coaches often say, you learn more from losses than you do from wins, but Cal's history has centered around not worrying about winning, or how much the Bears win by. Instead, it has been about achieving a rarely-reached standard. 

Cal players might win a game by 60 and find their performance taken apart on film review, because it's about the execution not the result. Until of course it is about the result, because everyone likes to win championships.

What was weird about this season was that for the first time in any full season for a very long time Cal didn't play University of British Columbia. Whatever the reasons for that, the annual two-game series was always considered a valuable test for the Bears. This year that test was replaced by ... well, we'll get back to that.

Things started well enough in the Dennis Storer Classic and after that, Santa Clara, UCSB, Grand Canyon, UCLA, and Utah. The bill for that run was 8-0 and the average score of 75-5.

All under control right? But other opponents began to push them. Against Arizona it was 24-17 with 20 minutes to go. Army hung tough, too and it was 19-14 going into the final quarter. And then Cal took a rare trip to the East Coast and visited Navy. The result was a game where Navy seemed to take control with three converted tries in the second half to make it 33-14.

But the Bears surged back with two converted tries and had a chance to win the game before falling 33-28. What we did see was, yet again, Cal finishing strong in games that were close or, in Navy's case, almost out of reach.

Not so fast. Two weeks later it is Saint Mary's that finished the stronger, scoring tries at 63 and 66 minutes to turn a 34-26 deficit into a 38-34 victory. But the pieces had been put into place to improve their offense. Freshman scrumhalf Solomon Williams was put into the #9 jersey and Max Schumacher, who had been a Rudy Scholz Award candidate as a fullback, vaulted himself into finalist status at flyhalf. Both Williams and Schumacher brought a dangerous running ability that required defenses to be careful of them. Both can defend well and both are good leaders.

It's rare but not unheard of for a freshman to get regular starting time with Cal, and when they do, it's because they demonstrate attributes over and above rugby talent. Well, we knew Williams was a leader in watching him with Thunder Rugby these last few years. Schumacher, who, like Williams, had led his high school team to a national championship, is older and perhaps wiser. 

Not to take anything away from the other halfback combination players at Cal, but this combo seems to have energized the attack. Williams is physically strong and plays very low. His quick-tap try against BYU in the semis shows him never standing upright, but leading with his shoulders through and around tacklers. Schumacher often takes a hit as he distributes and he just bounces back up. He and Williams seem to have a good chemistry together.

The results speak for themselves. Over 80 points against Cal Poly, a 29-28 victory over Saint Mary's, and a 55-31 defeat of BYU to make this final.

Is this a dramatically different Cal team from March? Perhaps. But really against Saint Mary's the difference is going from a four-point loss to a one-point win ... so maybe not dramatically difference.

The margins are so small this year in D1A that small differences can loom large. What Cal has generally brought to the table is a team that finishes strong, has a deep bench, and can score quickly. Whether all of that is enough to overcome Navy is another matter.