The UCSB men’s rugby team booked itself a trip to the playoffs on Saturday with a thrilling 18-14 comeback win over rival San Diego State to take the second seed in the Southern California Rugby Football Union Division I. By beating the Aztecs, the Gauchos earned the #16 seed in the playoffs, which will match them up against perennial powerhouse Cal in the first round, set to begin in Berkeley in two weeks.
“It was just a really hard-fought game. San Diego State came to play, and it took a total team effort to beat them,” sophomore outside center Jonathan Schaefer said. “Our defense really carried us in the second half, and we were able to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us.”
Schaefer put on a show for the Gaucho fans, scoring all 18 of UCSB’s points by running for two tries – converting the two-point kick after one of them – and hitting two three-point penalty kicks as the Gauchos overcame an 11-7 deficit after one half.
“[Schaefer] was the one who finished off great teamwork the whole way down, being the last one to touch the ball and get the scores,” Gaucho Head Coach Kevin Battle said. “[Schaefer] had one hell of a game, but it was really a full-on team effort. They didn’t panic when they were down and when the pressure was on them. It tells a lot about the determination and the heart of this team in being able to overcome that deficit.”
Early on, UCSB seemed to have no solution for San Diego State’s very physical running game. The Gauchos struggled in the first half as the Aztecs opened up an 11-0 lead with a try and two penalty kicks. Scheafer’s first try of the game cut the deficit to 11-7 as the first half expired.
“We went into the locker room and got a hell of a motivational speech from our coach,” junior Kyle McBride said. “We saw our season slipping away, and we came awake and came alive in the second half.”
After making adjustments on defense, UCSB came out strong in the second half, scoring two penalty kicks for a 13-11 lead. The Aztecs took the lead again in the 78th minute of play, scoring a penalty kick of their own to lead 14-13. But the Gauchos had one more drive in them, marching down the field and driving close to the end zone before Schaefer was able to cross the goal line for an 18-14 lead. The Gaucho defense was able to shut down the Aztecs’ final drive to preserve the victory.
“We can be really pleased with our second-half performance, and that we were able to make adjustments and shut them down on defense,” McBride said. “At the same time, if we’re going to beat top level teams in the playoffs, especially Cal, we’re going to have to come out firing on all cylinders.”
The road ahead gets tougher for the Gauchos, as Cal has featured the best rugby program in the nation for over a decade now, with the last fourteen national titles under its belt. The fact that the first round of the playoffs will be held at Cal adds to the challenge.
“It’s a chance to play the best team in America, and it’s an honor to play on their field,” McBride said. “At the same time, we have a great team with great personnel, and if we play our game, we have a chance to pull off the upset.”
The Gauchos will be training hard for the upcoming playoffs, as the game against Cal will be one of the most important in the program’s short history.
“We got a tough draw, but you have to beat them at some point,” Battle said. “We’re not going to try to come close to Cal, or hang in there with Cal. We’re going to play this game to win.”