Jan. 1, 2007
BERKELEY - With six starters, including four All-Americans, gone from its national championship team, California seeks to honor its 125th anniversary in 2007 with the right stuff to make a run at its 23rd collegiate title.
An expansive schedule will not allow the Golden Bears to be slow out of the gate as they establish their identity. "We'll play some good teams this year, which should help us build our side," said head coach Jack Clark. Cal opens Jan. 10 with the first of three matches in eight days on Witter Rugby Field before joining every Pac-10 team at the second annual UCLA Tournament Jan. 20-21.
"I sense we will be most vulnerable early in the season," coach Clark said. "Many of our competitors begin their seasons much earlier than us and will therefore be further along in their development."
Despite the potential advantage opponents carry into January with a fall schedule under their belts, Clark is "not really that tempted to take the bait and follow this lead. We have peaked in the right April-May window so many times, that I believe we have the correct approach."
But the Bears and Clark, who enters his 24th season as head coach with a 391-64-5 record (.850, 18 national championships), know that plenty of challenges await before their preferred peak period. On Feb. 17 they host Army, followed four days later by Cal's home half of the annual series with British Columbia. Ten days later, the 2006 Rugby Super League champion Old Mission Beach Athletic Club descends on Strawberry Canyon.
The Bears will also host two pools of the Round of 16 on Witter Rugby Field April 20-22.
The graduation of top-level talents and unknowns surrounding their successors make the immediate future more precarious than the long term for Cal, with many feeling that this team will truly peak as a group in 2008.
A mixed forecast coming into 2007 means Cal will need flat-out commitment to be successful while seeking answers about this year's team. Said Clark, "What we may lack in accuracy and teamwork early on will need to be tempered with great enthusiasm for the work.
"Certainly we will have much to prove up front. We have a few very good players, but most of our forwards are unproven at the championship level. Time will tell, but we may need to employ a more adventurous style to be successful."
If Cal decides to push the ball and change tempo more as part of its approach, the Berkeley faithful will wonder which new players will emerge to thrive within that system. "It seems that every year we get a pleasant surprise or two from somewhere deep within the depth chart," Clark said. "It might be that in '07 we will need such a surprise."
Forwards: Stanfill Moves from Engine Room to Back Row
Senior Louis Stanfill, MVP of the 2006 National Championships and one of three returning All-Americans, will once again be Cal's go-to guy in the lineout. But Stanfill, whose effectiveness in loose play makes him an excellent ballcarrier as well, won't be in his familiar lock position when the scrum assembles. The graduation of All-American No. 8 Andrew Lindsey has forced Clark to fill that void with the 6-4, 243-pound player from Sacramento.
Stanfill's move and the graduation of his All-American brother, Jake, has cost Cal some depth at the No. 4 and 5 lock positions. Sophomore Julian Snellgrove's skills and experience could pair well with those of sophomore Eric Fry, though most of Fry's extensive 2006 minutes came at flanker and No. 8. After that, the Bears may turn to second rows like junior Paul Jesseman and senior Nick LaBounty.
In the front row, Cal may call upon the tandem of junior props Kevin Kroll and Jim Barrett to absorb the loss of All-American Cyrus Dorosti. Kroll, at a shade over 200 pounds, will be asked to battle much heavier opponents. Junior Sean Wilhelmy awaits his opportunity with junior Anthony Estrella, who is back in the mix after spending all of 2006 recovering from injury.
Manning the hooker position in the middle of the front row is junior strongman Chris Biller. The returning All-American could also shift over to prop in some scenarios, in which case Cal could call on junior Pat King or senior John Kuhns. Senior flanker Joe Welch isn't averse to slotting in at hooker, too, if injury problems thin the scrum.
Welch and the dynamic All-American Rikus Pretorius appear to be Cal's starters at flanker, with junior Kyle Balough and seniors James Sehr and James Keady available. Keady could also join senior Ross Biestman in competition for time at No. 8.
Backs: Question Marks in Midfield
Cal will show a different look in 2007 when the ball is shipped to the back line. Gone is scrumhalf Andrew Johnson, who contributed 75 excellent minutes in the 2006 national title match. Gone is the superb flyhalf Robert Weedon and gone is All-American inside center Ryan Donnelly.
Despite those differences, Cal's backs look capable if inexperienced in certain spots. Seniors Brendan Wright and Zak Triplett both played significant time at scrumhalf last season. Senior flyhalves Pat Castles and David Poettcker have a similar level of experience with the reserve XV. Sophomore Keegan Engelbrecht, back after a season lost to injury, will also add depth at the No. 10 spot.
Senior Chase Brogan will be a familiar face for the Bears at outside center. Junior Cody Stevens may join him inside. Cal's further depth in the centers includes Colin Hawley, who earned playing time last year as a freshman, junior Connor O'Brien and junior transfer Gary Golding, and sophomores Austin Pugh and Dustin Watson.
The choices at wing for Cal begin with returning starters Scott Kidd and Jason Lee, both juniors, and continue with senior Ryan Miller, junior Ryan Harris and sophomore Eduardo Lopez. Senior Chris Gurecki, whose clearance kick sealed Cal's victory over BYU in the 2006 final, returns at fullback hoping to stay healthy after a long stay on the shelf last year. Other options at No. 15 include sophomore Ryan Taylor as well as O'Brien and even Brogan if midfield becomes crowded.
Health is an X factor every year, and unlike last season, when Jake Stanfill, Gurecki, Engelbrecht, Pretorius and several other Bears were on the mend, Cal enters the 2007 campaign with relatively healthier bodies. That puts the Bears in good position to deliver their answers to the host of questions surrounding this year's team.
"It's all about the challenge, isn't it?" said Clark. "The challenge of players taking the next step in their careers, filling the leadership vacuum of the graduated players, developing a set of tactics for our new team and the challenge of competing with the top teams."
For fans, it's a recipe for an exciting season in celebration of the 125th year of Cal Rugby.