MORAGA, Calif. – Could it finally be the Gaels’ year? St. Mary’s (California) has always been one of the top teams in the country, but seem to always get beaten out before making it to the big show – the National Championship game.
Last season, the big one was within their grasps. Up 17-12 over Arkansas State in the semifinals with less than 20 minutes to go, St. Mary’s grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory. The Red Wolves kicked into high gear and the Gaels shut off and ASU scored 14 points in 17 minutes. The final 17 minutes, crucially.
Let’s think about that game for a moment: Arkansas State won the semifinal rather miraculously in the final stages. ASU went on to give eventual champs BYU a real run for their money on national television and in front of what was effectively BYU’s home crowd. St. Mary’s almost knocked off Arkansas State and Arkansas State almost beat BYU. There’s surely a transitive property argument in there somewhere, but that’s a slippery slope of conjecture and…Let’s not do that. Let’s look at what they did accomplish.
Cal, the team that won the inaugural D1A (formerly known as the College Premier Division, which was formerly known as the College Premier League) National Championship in 2011, and then proceeded to drop out of the competition the following year. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Cal is a monster program. They’ve won 27 National Championships. They attract the best rugby athletes from all over the country and world. They also let their rugby do the talking, most times. If you play Cal, you will have to be at your absolute best to beat them. What does that have to do with St. Mary’s? St. Mary’s beat Cal last year. Yes, that Cal.
For those familiar with the St. Mary’s/Cal rivalry, it’s a great one. First, Moraga is about 30 minutes from Berkeley. They compete for recruits and draw enormous crowds of well-educated rugby fans in the Bay Area. It’s rugby how it should be played and it’s two programs that, while very different, are extremely tough and talented. The Cal win meant something. Maybe everything. Getting the Cal monkey off its back might be the thing that sets the Gaels off on a dynasty-type run. But how are they doing this year?
So far this season, St. Mary’s has scored 239 points in three games and have given up ONE unconverted try. Five points. For every point the opposition scores, St. Mary’s scores 47.8. Try to keep up with that strike rate for 80 minutes. Not many can.
In fairness, their competition has been on the soft side (Stanford and UCSB are new to D1A this season), but they are still good programs with really good coaching and really good players. It might just be that the Gaels are in a class of their own in California. They might not even hit a speed bump until the playoffs when they take on a Life or an Arkansas State.
But, is this their year? If the wheels stay on the bus and they stay healthy, I see St. Mary’s barreling through the regular season and playoffs unbeaten.