Gaels Score 14 Straight to Come Back & Beat Cal in a Thriller at Witter | By: Christian Portillo
MORAGA, CALIF. - What a day. What a win. For Gael rugby fans near and far, young and old, Saturday’s 27-24 come-from-behind victory will always be remembered as the gorgeous, sunny day that Saint Mary’s won at UC Berkeley for the first time since 1971.
In a packed, sold-out Witter Rugby Field that had fans sitting on the stairwells and railways just to catch a glimpse of two of the country’s top rugby programs going at it on the pitch, there were plenty of Saint Mary’s alumni, former and current players, and students to be found cheering the Gaels on.
Right from the onset of the match, the tone of physicality was set and the intensity level did not let up for any of the proceeding eighty minutes. Aaron Matthews, who shifted over from the inside centre position to the outside centre position in place of Mike Wallace, caught a kick in the air but was tackled while still in the air. Cal fullback Jake Goena was given a yellow card for his infraction and had to sit out for ten minutes. Saint Mary’s own fullback, Dylan Audsley, elected to go for points but his kick was just short of the goalposts.
Just over fifteen minutes into the match, after some unsuccessful Gael attempts at driving past the try line, fly-half Mike McCarthy placed a perfect cross kick to the left side right into Chris McDonnell’s hands, who jumped up and brought the ball down for the first try of the match. Dylan Audsley’s conversion was good to get Saint Mary’s off to an early 7-0 lead.
About three minutes later, Cal responded with freshman winger Sam Cusano running down the left sideline for the Golden Bears’ first of three tries on the night. Although Cusano touched the ball down near the middle of the try zone, fly-half Russell Webb’s conversion was no good and let the Gaels keep a 7-5 lead rather than a 7-7 tie.
Cal was able to take the lead after inside centre Anthony Salaber picked off a Saint Mary’s pass and took it all the way for a pick-5 try. This time around, Russell Webb made the conversion to make the score 7-12 in Cal’s favor.
Saint Mary’s was able to cut into the Golden Bears’ lead after Cal was called for a high tackle penalty and Dylan Audsley chose to go for points again. He did not let his first missed penalty goal deter him from focusing his efforts on successfully making his second attempt from 25 metres out to bring the Gaels within two points, 10-12. After some good drives, Audsley chose to go for points from 40 metres out at the 10-metre line but missed.
With the game being so close and there being no indication as to when another scoring opportunity would open up, Cal’s Russell Webb rushed a drop goal that came short of the goalposts. In such a competitive match, points come at a premium, and Webb’s missed drop goal actually led to a Cal scrum that came as a result of a Saint Mary’s knock on. Freshman scrum-half Keanu Andrade strongly took the ball through the middle of the Gaels’ goal line defense to score a try off of this scrum after receiving an offload from Drew Gaffney. Webb’s successful conversion expanded Cal’s lead to 19-10 heading into the half.
In the second half, Cal elected to go for points from 39 metres out after a Saint Mary’s penalty but missed short and to the right. Minutes later, a penalty was called on the Golden Bears for not releasing and Audsley also went for points from 39 metres out. With one of the best boots in the country, though, the result was different and he made his second penalty goal of the afternoon to cut Cal’s lead to 19-13. Knowing that he can hit from just about the 10 metre line, after Cal’s next penalty, Audsley decided to go for points from the halfway line, which is 50 metres from the try line. A seemingly impossible attempt for anyone else but the 2016 Rudy Scholz Award winner literally came just 1 metre short of the goalposts and kept the score at 13-19.
With so much on the line in this match, the aggressive, physical play escalated into a small scuffle as things got chippy on the pitch. No cards were handed out and play continued. Cal won the 10 metre lineout and drove the maul past the try line, where flanker Nic Mirhashem scored the unconverted try in the right corner to extend Cal’s lead to 24-13.
Down 11 points with less than 18 minutes remaining in the match, things were looking bleak for the Gaels. Any further mistakes could lead to Cal scoring and putting the match away. As the time kept on winding down, it felt as if the chances to win the game were slipping away.
Enter Aaron Matthews. With just over eleven minutes to play, Saint Mary’s stole the ball after a bad Cal offload in their own 22. Jack Carso was single-handedly able to get on top of the ball before Cal could recover it, and quickly passed to Matthews, who ran off the edge and dove for the try in the right corner. Audsley’s second conversion of the afternoon was perfect to get Saint Mary’s within four, 20-24.
Cory Kroeger, who had subbed in minutes earlier, was making the most of his opportunities by playing with lots of energy and just bursting through and plowing defenders that were in his way. This level of energy was needed down the stretch because with less than ten minutes to play, the Gaels just needed something to go their way and provide a much-earned break or else they would lose to Cal once again. Kroeger’s inspired play is just the type of play that facilitates these types of opportunities.
One such chance came with just under four minutes left in the match. Jack Carso caught Cal’s kick and smartly yet subtly quickly tapped the ball to initiate a big run starting from the Gaels’ own 22 that propelled the Gaels forward. He offloaded the ball to fly-half Mike McCarthy, who shook and bounced off several defenders on his way to bringing the ball into Cal territory. Although he was taken down about ten metres short of the try line, Saint Mary’s was right there with him to provide a successful ruck, and the Gaels had numbers on the weak side as well. Kevin O’Connor, who was in the middle of the action all afternoon, offloaded the ball to the left side to Payton Telea, who assisted Aaron Matthews for the go-ahead try that put the Gaels ahead 25-24 for their first lead since it was 7-5 eighteen minutes into the match. Dylan Audsley’s third and final successful conversion capped off a 14-0 run that gave the Gaels a three point cushion so that a penalty or drop goal on behalf of the Golden Bears would only tie, and not win, the match at 27 points apiece.
This huge play initiated by the quick thinking of Jack Carso displayed the speed of the Gaels, especially Mike McCarthy, and their level of conditioning that enabled them to be right there with him to win the ruck and set up a second ruck before spreading the field wide left and passing the ball out wide to the left side for an easy try by Aaron Matthews to put the exclamation mark on the signature play. The hot summer days sprinting the rolling hills of Moraga paid off in a tangible way. This play also showed the mental toughness of this Gaels’ squad and the collective resiliency that they have. Down 11 with under eighteen minutes to play against the fourth-ranked team in the country, things weren’t looking very good. In fact, the visiting crowd atmosphere felt similar to when Saint Mary’s lost at Cal two years ago by giving up 16 consecutive points to end the game. However, this year’s Saint Mary’s team was the one scoring fourteen consecutive points to come back from a 13-24 deficit to win 27-24 in a heart-racing, thrilling fashion.
But to solidify the win, they first had to hold off Cal from scoring in the two-and-a-half minutes left. Any little slip-up could lead to Cal stealing a win at the last moment. Saint Mary’s did a great job of delivering big hits and of winning the scrum before kicking the ball behind the try zone to end the match. Once the referee signaled that the match was officially over, all of the Saint Mary’s players in the visitor’s section stormed the pitch to the sound of the visiting crowd’s chants of “SMC, SMC,” and for good reason too. This is the first time that Saint Mary’s has defeated Cal at Berkeley since 1971. It was a win full of emotion, passion, and pride that showed what Gael Rugby is all about. This win also lifts the heavy weight of defeating Cal off of the Gaels’ backs, especially of the seniors and fifth-years. As team captain Kevin O’Connor said, “It’s a great feeling. We haven’t done it in about forty years. Especially with the guys on our team, we have a special group this year. It’s a tremendous feeling.”
Fellow flanker Alec Barton, who had several great runs and punishing moves, also added, “It feels awesome after all of the work we’ve been putting in. It’s been a couple of years now. It feels awesome to have all of this work pay off. It feels great to be here with my brothers and to win this game together.”