By Brett Anker
Photo Credit: Mikaela Raphael
With a Central Washington penalty hooking left as time expired, Cal advanced to its 4th consecutive Penn Mutual Varsity Cup final. The Golden Bears tallied two tries in the first half and with stout defense held on to win 14-13 in Strawberry Canyon.
Both squads had opportunities early inside the opposition five-meter lines but strong defense held them both off the score sheet. The excellent defense and a strong wind hampered both teams’ offensive capabilities all afternoon.
After Russell Webb missed a penalty inside the first 10 minutes, CWU fullback Ian Wright scampered in for the games opening score. Tanner Barnes made a line break and found the fullback with an offload. With the conversion, the Wildcats led 7-0 and took that lead deep into the first half.
“Tanner had a phenomenal day, and it was no doubt that he was the best player on the field,” CWU coach Tony Pacheco said. “He broke the line, drew the fullback and Ian followed right behind. It was a great way to start the match.”
Cal responded with 14 unanswered points late in the first half. The Golden Bears scored all of its points in a four-minute span with Patrick Barrientes and Russell Webb dotting down to take the lead. Webb converted both tries to give Cal a 14-7 advantage.
CWU looked to get even in the 36th minute but Clint Lemkus was held up in the in goal. On the following five-meter scrum, Cal prevented a score but committed a penalty nearly 40 meters out. The Wildcats missed the kick and Cal maintained the 14-7 advantage going into the break.
Neither team gave much in the second half. The only points either team was able to muster was a couple of penalties for Central Washington. The win played a factor in the second half, particularly with attempts at goal. Webb, who went 0-3 on penalties, missed early in the second half before Reuben Ludick nailed his first of the afternoon to cut the lead to 14-10.
“We didn’t capitalize on some of the things we had early on in the game,” said Cal back-rower Thomas Robles. “Lucky to come away with the win but, on that same page, we also put in a lot of effort and stood by each other.”
Webb mishit an attempt at goal two minutes later and until about 20 minutes left the game remained the same score. Ludick drilled a second penalty to make it a one-point contest with about 18 minutes left.
It became an uphill battle for the visitors inside the last quarter of the game as the Wildcats saw a player sent to the sin bin for a late hit. The Wildcats played tough despite being down a man, and in side the final five minutes looked to have gotten the game winning score. Aladdin Schirmer picked at the back of a 5-meter scrum and powered his way in but the Wildcats were pinged for a penalty. With less than five minutes to play Cal still led 14-13.
The Wildcats continued to fight, earning another penalty in the 76th minute. Ludick missed short and Webb cleared the ball. After stealing the ensuing lineout, Cal worked its way into the CWU 22. A not straight throw on a lineout, however, gave the visitors one last chance to steal the victory. Central Washington worked its way down field and the referee awarded a penalty for hands in at the ruck, Ludick lined up the kick but it hooked left and Cal came away with the victory.
“It’s such a great honor to play on this field, and to come out with a big win under a lot of pressure means the world,” added prop Scott Walsh. “It gives us a chance at the national championship.”
For Central Washington, who lost to Cal by a hefty margin two years ago in the same circumstances, it was an improved by disappointing result.
“I am really proud of how our team played, we did everything we could to win the game,” Pacheco added. “I felt like we were the better team out there today, unfortunately, things did not go our way.”
Cal will make its fourth straight appearance in the Varsity Cup final. The Golden Bears will travel to South Field on the campus of BYU to take on the undefeated Cougars.
The match will take place on May 7th and will be aired live on the NBCSN at 2PM MST/4PM EST.