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UCLA Hosts CWU, GCU at Cal in Non-Conference DIA Action

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UCLA Hosts CWU, GCU at Cal in Non-Conference DIA Action

UCLA won big over Stanford last week. Gabby Rosenberg photo.

Two intriguing non-conference D1A games are on the slate for this weekend, with Grand Canyon at Cal and Central Washington at UCLA.

Cal is coming off two lopsided victories, having played Santa Clara and UC Santa Barbara. Certainly the Bears are playing some impressive rugby, but it remains hard to gauge exactly how impressive. This weekend hosting the ‘Lopes might be a better measurement.

GCU, meanwhile, is coming off a January 21 defeat of UCLA 24-14. It was a game that was gratifying to Head Coach Sean O’Leary, but he also added that UCLA might be a different outfit as the season progresses.

Certainly GCU is young, and may give up a few inches in height when comparing their tallest players (we’re giving away no secrets here; it’s just a fact that Grand Canyon will have to compensate).

O’Leary isn’t fazed by playing Cal—he’s always been one to welcome a challenge.

“You’ve got to test yourself locally first and after that the goal was to develop a program where players test themselves against the best. We do that so that we can compete with the best.”

With a squad that has 14 freshmen and sophomores in their likely gameday 23, GCU is playing Cal, BYU, and Saint Mary’s in quick succession—not a schedule for the faint of heart.

“I came here to build a program to compete nationally; two Saturdays ago [against UCLA] we moved it in the right direction,” said O’Leary.

The ‘Lopes have made strides in their play—a few visits from Scott Bracket, whose daughter attends GCU, has made the scrum much more effective. But O’Leary said it’s the off-field stuff he’s noticed the most.

“The maturity is better,” he said, noting that COVID isolation had a fairly lasting effect on how players carried themselves. “We’ve seen this massive jump in the accepting of responsibility. There’s ownership. The leadership group is starting to lead but there’s also freshmen who have been playing at good programs and with EIRA and Rhino who are showing that leadership too.”

GCU is also very aware of their status as a team without a conference (same as CWU). It means that every game has meaning. It’s like a playoff decider every time, and certainly the UCLA result will loom large when it comes time to fill out that D1A playoff bracket.

For Cal, Head Coach Jack Clark clearly wants to challenge his players and putting over 100 on UCSB didn't exactly accomplish that, but he spoke of the Gauchos playing hard all the way through. What the Bears will want to do is play as accurately and with as much intensity in minute 80 as in minute 1. That will provide an excellent challenge for GCU, because a lax period of five minutes can hurt, a lot.

Meanwhile, UCLA rebounded from their loss to GCU with a big win over Stanford. Head Coach Harry Bennett said his team is excited for the challenge Central Washington presents.

"I am curious to see how our players respond to the occasion," Bennett said. "I am confident that we can match up with top teams when we apply ourselves."

But, added Bennett, they have to be mentally present.

"The big focus this week has been belief in in our ability and confidence to trust the process," explained the coach.

The mental side of the game has been a big part of Central Washington's strong start. The Wildcats visited University of British Columbia, which had beaten Saint Mary’s, and downed the Thunderbirds 32-17. They also beat Western Washington and Trinity Western, but it’s the UBC result that turned some heads.

“We’re just working on staying in the now,” said Head Coach Todd Thornley. “We worry about having a good training session. We worry about traveling well.”

It’s a fairly veteran CWU side with a nice blend of talent. 

“Some of the guys have been around for four or five years; a lot of shared experiences and they are building belief.”

It will be a bit of an environmental shift for Central as they go from the freezing tundra of Washington State’s interior to the warmth of LA. Thornley kind of shrugged at that. “We’ve just got to be prepared to be a little bit uncomfortable, be smart about it and hydrate.”

 the training today. Win the travel to go down to LA. Just win each thing that’s in front of us.”