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Bears going for 11th straight title

By Jared Green Daily Planet Staff
Friday May 04, 2001


When a Cal fan heads into Memorial Stadium these days, there’s not much to brag about. The football team hasn’t made a bowl game in four years, and hopes aren’t exactly high for next season. But look a little farther up Strawberry Canyon, just over the east lip of the stadium, and you’ll get a look at what excellence really is. That’s Witter Field, home of the Cal men’s rugby team. 

The nation’s top team heads for Virginia Beach, Va., this weekend to go for its 11th straight national championship. That’s right, 11 straight seasons of being the best in the country. The football program pales in comparison. Heck, no team in college athletics can match a streak like that. 

The Bears face Navy on Saturday, with the winner facing the winner of the Army-Penn State game on Sunday. The three other teams all have multiple appearances in the Final Four, but have been unsuccessful in trying to knock Cal from the top of the mountain. 

In fact, no American team has beaten the Bears since 1996, when Stanford managed to take a game from them. Before that, Clark’s teams had won 98 straight games in the U.S. That adds up to nearly one whole decade with one loss to an American team. 

Jack Clark has coached the team through this unprecedented run, and he feels like this year’s team could be at the top of not just the nation, but of his own personal pantheon of great teams. 

“We’ve first got to bring home a championship, because that, in some ways, will validate us,” Clark said. “But if we do accomplish that, I would say this is one of the best teams I’ve ever coached.” 

Considering the fact that the Bears have won 13 of a possible 17 titles under Clark, and 17 out of 21 total, that would make them one of the top teams in U.S. history.  

Clark said he usually has to shape the team’s playing style to fit his team’s strengths and weaknesses, but this year’s squad is the most complete he’s had. 

“We’ve been pretty flexible in our approach and developed a pattern of play according to what our players do well. We want to highlight what we do best and disguise what we do poorest,” he said. 

“Over last 10 years we’ve played forward-oriented rugby, and we’ve been where we’ve used every available ball to the backs out wide. For some years we had several good kickers, so we were very field-position oriented. This year we’ve got all the parts to a very good rugby team.” 

One key part of the team wasn’t with the team on Thursday and won’t be with them today. Captain Shaun Paga is at a training camp for the Minnesota Vikings, who signed him as a free agent last week. The camp runs through the weekend, but Minnesota head coach Dennis Green is allowing Paga to miss the final two days to finish his Cal rugby career. 

“Denny was kind enough to dismiss him for the weekend, and he’s been very supportive of Shaun playing with us,” Clark said. 

The move has put Clark in an unfamiliar position: leaning on a Stanford man for help. Green coached for the Cardinal before moving to the NFL. 

“I’ve just become a big Denny Green fan,” Clark said. “You let my captain come play in the Final Four and you win my applause.” 

But the fact is that even without Paga, the Bears would be a heavy favorite to take home the trophy this weekend. Clark’s team boasts five players with national team experience, and are deep enough to have dominated this year despite losing several key players to injuries. 

Four of those national team players are forwards, making a dominant pack that can bully just about any team around the field. Prop Mike McDonald, lock Brian Meux and flanker Kort Schubert have all joined Paga in representing the U.S., along with new addition John Buccholz, a versatile back who can move from center to fullback with no problem. 

“We have some stars, but we also put a pretty good supporting cast around those guys,” Clark said. “We’ve got some young guys who can be just as good in the future.” 

In other words, don’t expect the Bears to fall anytime soon. The difficulty of keeping up a strong program was underlined earlier this year, when Stanford decided to cancel their match with Cal because they couldn’t field a competitive side. But Clark doesn’t let his team get complacent, with constant competition for starting spots. 

“We haven’t won 10 straight championships by ever assuming anything,” Clark said. “This is no time for overconfidence, no time for assumption. This is the business end of the year, and if we play our best, we should bring home the trophy.” 

“But wanting to play your best and actually doing it are two different things.”