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Unfamiliar Foes as Cal Faces Arkansas State in VC Final

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Unfamiliar Foes as Cal Faces Arkansas State in VC Final

Jake Goena goes for the tryline for Cal against Penn State. ABFlyer photo.

Cal takes on Arkansas State on what promises to be a windy Varsity Cup Final at Stevens Field in Santa Clara, Saturday.

These two teams haven't met since 2010, when they played a DIA (then called the CPL) semifinal. 

At that time, Cal v Arkansas State featured five Bears – Colin Hawley, Seamus Kelly, Derek Asbun, Eric Fry, and Danny Barrett – who would go on to U.S. National Team and/or professional rugby careers, and two players, Asbun and Jason Law, who later earned Blues for Oxford in the Varsity Match against Cambridge. Arkansas State had some future Eagle pedigree also, with Jake Mizell later playing for the USA 7s team. Cal won that meting 83-27.

Cal (16-3), which beat Penn State, 35-14, in their April 15 semifinal to advance to the final, is making its fifth straight Varsity Cup final appearance, having most recently beaten BYU 40-29 to win the 2016 Varsity Cup championship match.

The Red Wolves (9-1-1) have played in one other major final, a 49-42 loss to BYU in 2011. They beat Navy 25-7 two weeks ago in Jonesboro, Ark. to make this game.

Arkansas State also has impressive wins this spring over Big 10 Champion Indiana, 46-23, in addition to its postseason Round 1 win over Oklahoma, 68-7, and quarterfinal victory over Utah Valley, 39-12.

"Arkansas State is quite impressive in their video footage," said Cal Head Coach Jack Clark. "They are a very talented team with good balance, in that both the forwards and backs units are strong. They win their share of the possession and move the ball around the field skillfully. I sense they are a rugby-experienced team, which just adds to the challenge."

Projected to start for Arkansas State in the front row is Brandon van Niekerk, Kuda Makuvire or George Sharp at hooker, and Tanner Pope. The second row for the Red Wolves could include Taboo Mareer next to Campbell Robinson; the back row is anchored by captain Blace Walser.

Since the ASU team is partially funded by the University's International Studies program, it's not surprise that the Red Wolves have a heavy overseas influence. But Walser is from the Union HS program in Tulsa, Okla., Robinson from the Trojans out of Roswell, Ga., and Pope from Katy, Texas.

It's the same story in the backs, with talent from Australia, France, and the UK mixed in with some more nearby talent.

Cal will look to freshman Damon Wiley to be a big part of the front row, with hooker Wade Ogburn and senior prop Kevin Sullivan. Sophomore Robert Paylor is looking to return from an injury that kept him out of the semifinal to start at lock next to Connor Sweet, while freshman Thomas Spradling - who had a big game against Penn State - and sophomore Nic Mirhashem appear to be the selections at flanker on either side of No. 8 Drew Gaffney.

Freshman Keanu Andrade could punctuate his first spring 15s campaign with another start at scrumhalf, feeding it to a very experienced midfield combination of Russell Webb at flyhalf, Patrick Barrientes inside and Anthony Salaber at outside center. On the wings, freshman Sam Cusano should have another opportunity to start, as will Jake Goena, while Aidan Flynn could be tasked with the fullback's job in only his second career start at that position.

The game will kick off at noon Pacific Time, and will be shown on delay at 7:30pm on NBC Sports Network. For more on the game and some insight from Wiley, go here.