SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Ray Sheeran Field on San Francisco’s Treasure Island has played host to numerous USA Rugby Club 7s National Championships. Now the illustrious rugby pitch is home to a new tradition: Saint Mary’s Battle in the Bay.
After nearly winning a very close match against Life University at USA Rugby’s D1A National Championship Final last spring, the Saint Mary’s College rugby club went from an up-and-coming program to a national powerhouse. In reality, most fans of college rugby saw the small private school from Moraga, Calif., as elite long before its 16-14 loss to Life. Needless to say, Saint Mary’s would not be sneaking up on any teams while hosting its two-day sevens event.
Saint Mary’s sevens coach and Battle of the Bay Tournament Director Tony Samaniego sought the best college rugby teams the West has to offer and, as a result, the four pools included the likes of Cal, Central Washington, UCLA, Cal Poly, San Diego State and several other respected clubs.
Saturday’s pool play saw minimal surprises as Cal, Saint Mary’s and Central Washington won their pools without breaking much of a sweat. Pool C, on the other hand, was much more competitive. Santa Clara eventually claimed the pool consisting of UCLA, Cal Poly and the University of San Diego. Both UCLA and Cal Poly, having already won qualifying tournaments and invitations to the College 7s National Championship, were using the tournament to build depth along their sevens side.
The second place finishers from each pool – Arizona State, San Diego State, Cal Poly and Western Washington – earned enough points on Saturday to move into Sunday’s Cup Quarterfinals. Only Western Washington, who shut out an overmatched Santa Clara club 31-0, was able to take down the higher-seeded pool winner.
Both semifinal matches involved teams that were plenty familiar with their opponent. Western Washington faced-off against fellow Northwest Collegiate Conference member Central Washington. Central, who won the Conference’s sevens championship the previous week, disposed of Western 35-7. Field 1’s semifinal produced the match that many in attendance were hoping to see. The Cal Golden Bears and Saint Mary’s College, each hailing from just the other end of the Bay Bridge, brought plenty of alumni and fans to support their respected programs. The close proximity of the two campuses and the clubs’ excellence on the pitch has created one of the best rivalries in college rugby.
“It doesn’t get much better than playing against Cal,” said Gaels senior Garrett Brewer. “It’s a game we look forward to both in sevens and 15s. They’re known as being one of the top college clubs in the nation. It’s always exciting to play against competitors like that.”
Looking to avenge a loss at the hands of the Bears at the West Coast Collegiate 7s, Saint Mary’s dug itself an early hole. Cal jumped out to an early 10-0 lead following tries from Alec Gletzer and Andrew Battaglia. Brewer, who has both size and dynamic playmaking ability, put a try across the line and Joey Reavey followed with a successful conversion to shrink Cal’s lead to a 10-7 advantage. The Gaels would close out the half with an impressive goal-line stand and went into the break down just three points.
Cal opened the second half with a kick that did not travel the necessary 10 meters. Saint Mary’s immediately took advantage of the penalty and Holden Youngert gave the Gaels the lead with a converted try. A third Saint Mary’s try followed with yet another Reavey conversion to put the tournament host ahead 21-10.
Cal would not bow out of the match without a fight. Jesse Milne scored a converted try for the Bears, but Saint Mary’s 21-17 lead would hold true. Brewer believes his team valued its possessions more so than they had in previous grudge matches against Berkeley.
“They’re good at capitalizing on the mistakes you make,” said the senior. “If you drop a ball they’re going to pick it up, if you turn it over they’re going to score. Beating them is being smart and we were able to limit our mistakes.”
The Cup Final showdown between Central Washington and Saint Mary’s proved to be far less thrilling than the all-Bay Area battle of the semis. Saint Mary’s looked like a team hungry to lock up its spot to the 2013 USA Rugby College 7s National Championship, while Central Washington played below the level of rugby we have become accustomed to seeing from the 2011 College 7s runner-up.
Saint Mary’s built a 22-0 halftime lead, which they eventually pushed to a 27-0 edge. A yellow card that sent Reavey to the sin bin allowed Central Washington to narrow the Gaels’ advantage to 13 points. However, that is as close as the Wildcats would get and Saint Mary’s posted a 32-19 victory and the Battle in the Bay title.
Saint Mary’s will play in the California 7s in Long Beach prior to heading to Greensboro for Nationals. After coming so close to winning the D1A title in 15s last spring, the Gaels are hungrier than ever to win a National Championship.
“It would mean everything,” said Brewer. “That’s everyone’s goal at the beginning of a 15s or sevens season is to win that National Championship. It would be an amazing feeling to be able to hoist that sevens trophy to show that everything we worked for was for a purpose and we did what we set out to accomplish.”
Photos Eric Foss