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Varsity Cup Semis - Close Calls

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Varsity Cup Semis - Close Calls

Navy has been on a roll. Colleen McCloskey photo.

And just like that, we're down to four teams in the Varsity Cup.

Cal hosts Penn State and Arkansas State hosts Navy in this year's final four, and it's all up in the air.

Certainly you have to figure Cal is almost unbeatable at Cal. Almost, that is, since the Bears actually did lose a game on storied Witter Rugby Field. Cal has since shaken off the bad memories of that game with a 71-7 pasting of Clemson that was clinical and dominant. Center Anthony Salaber scored three tries in the first half and now looks ahead to the final game for the seniors at Witter Field.

"Our game plan opened up some gaps inside and we were able to recycle the ball and move it out," said Salaber. "The opportunity to play on Witter Rugby Field one last time is a great honor. I know we're going to out everything we have into it."

They will have to. Penn State is an excellent team. The Nittany Lions went 8-0 in the Rugby East in the fall, and also beat St. Joseph's, Navy, and went 3-0 on a tour to Scotland. Their only hiccup was a 29-19 loss to Indiana on March 25. But they rebounded nicely with a 100-7 defeat of Harvard, and then, last week, defeated Army 47-34. If you're a pessimist fan of Penn State, you might be worried about their defensive line. Their last three games (not counting the blowout over Harvard) Penn State has given up 94 points.

"I don't think we have hit our peak," said Penn State captain and flanker Malcolm May. "But we are performing well even as we are still looking to improve week by week."

What Penn State has is a superb back row, some smart young players, including a 9-10 combo of Jimmy Ronan and Mike Dabulas that is clicking nicely. Chris Burian is a try-scoring No. 8, and Joe Kelly and Selby Niumataiwalu have emerged as a very snappy midfield combo.

Cal will possibly welcome back the skillful Patrick Barrientes from an injury timeout. Barrientes could instill some experience into a backline that has Russell Webb at flyhalf and Salaber at outside center. But the young players, such as scrumhalf Keanu Andrade and Sam Cusano, keep putting their hands up for selection.  Up front, Cal had to sit down prop Damon Wiley last week due to illness, but he should rejoin Kevin Sullivan in the front row with hooker Wade Ogburn. Robert Paylor, and Connor Sweet round out an imposing tight five.

"We will have to be accurate in all facets of the game to beat an impressive Cal team," warned Penn State's May.


Then in Jonesboro, Ark., Arkansas State will host Navy. For Arkansas State, they beat Oklahoma convincingly and then handled a tough Utah Valley University team. ASU won, said Head Coach Shaun Potgieter, because they kept to the game plan and worked the ball well enough to tire out UVU. He was pleased with his team's patience, and knows ASU will need it because Navy won't be an easy nut to crack.

“I can describe Navy with one word—disciplined,” said Potgieter. “They will hold onto the ball longer than any team. They will make their tackles and will not stop playing hard until the final whistle has blown. They proved it against Central Washington by winning in overtime."

Potgieter praised his front row of Brandon van Niekerk, George Sharpe and Tanner Pope as having a huge influence over last week's game. This week, they will, again, have a tough job.

Navy has enjoyed a boost since they decided to straighten out their defense, and got a couple of players back from injury. Gardy Lebon is a brilliant scrumhalf who is a leader for th pack as they work the phases. Connor McNerney is an excellent No. 8 and has been a clutch goalkicker, too.

As ASU's Potgieter said, Navy's overtime win over Central Washington is a head-turner, because it showed they can battle it out against a skilled, physical team for 100 minutes. But it's their organization. Navy's defensive organization has been excellent Since giving up 60 points to Penn State, they Midshipmen have played five ranked college teams, beaten all but Army, and given up 72 points. Every single one of those points (except perhaps Army's winning try) the opposition has had to battle for.

Cal kicks off against Penn State at 1pm PT at Witter Field on Saturday. Arkansas State hosts Navy at Curt Huckaby Field at 1pm CT.