When a team wins 11 straight national titles, it becomes apparent that the competition provided within the United States isn’t quite getting it done. That’s where the Cal men’s rugby team is: they haven’t been beaten by an American team since 1996 and routinely beat their domestic competition by 50 points or more. The answer: import tougher opponents.
That’s what the Bears will face this week, when two Canadian teams come to town. The University of Victoria is up first today, with kickoff scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Witter Field. The Bears will then face the University of British Columbia at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Cal will head to Canada for return matches in late March.
The home-and-home set with Canada’s top college programs has become a tradition for Cal. British Columbia handed the Bears their only loss of last season, a 27-25 victory in Berkeley.
“The Canadian games are definitely one of the high points of the year,” Cal prop forward Mike McDonald said. “The first set of games are especially tough, because we haven’t had enough time to really come together as a team yet.”
The lack of cohesion hasn’t appeared to hurt the Bears so far this season. They have played six games, winning by an average margin of more than 63 points and breaking the 100-point barrier with a 103-5 win over New Mexico last weekend. Jack Clark, head coach of the Cal team for the past 19 seasons, thinks this year’s team could be the best yet.
“We could be better than last year,” Clark said. “That’s not a prediction, because there’s certainly a lot we have to accomplish to measure up to last season. But the elements are there.”
Clark has had unprecedented success in his time at Cal. With 14 national championships in 18 seasons, he has coached the Bears to a 307-54-4 overall record and sent scores of players on to the U.S. national team. But Clark is far from satisfied with his team’s accomplishments.
“We’ve had pretty much a dream run as of late,” he said. “Intellectually I know it will end at some point, but emotionally we’re not ready to think 2002 might be the end.”
While Clark’s teams haven’t had to deal with much adversity on the field, this offseason was a painful one for the program. Two former players were killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, former captain Mark Bingham and football player Brent Woodall. Then in late December, starter Dominic Cooke suffered serious injuries in a car accident, leaving him partially paralyzed.
“It’s a huge blow,” McDonald said of Cooke’s accident. “It put a dark cloud over the team for a while. We were just in shock.”
Although the Bears haven’t suffered much on the field, with Joel DiGiorgio taking over the halfback spot, Clark knows his players are dealing with bigger issues than winning games.
“We have to let the feelings take their course. The players should have a range of emotions,” Clark said. “We’re certainly sad for Dominic, but it does make the little things in your life more important.”
For players like McDonald, who lived with Cooke last year, focusing on playing the game is still important. While the team’s tradition is a bragging point, it also brings with it a lot of pressure.
“We have a great tradition going, and no one wants to be the team that breaks the streak,” McDonald said.